Ezra Levant

Canada’s broadcast regulator has dropped its investigation of foul-mouthed commentator Ezra Levant’s obscene on-air language last June after Sun News Network issued a vague apology a few days ago.

The door was opened to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s retreat from doing its job when the industry-run Canadian Broadcast Standards Council quietly shelved its objections to investigating complaints about Levant’s obscenity-laced June 13 commentary. According to the CRTC, the CBSC changed its mind because of the Sun News Network “apology” that was aired with little fanfare on Sept. 17.

Back on June 13, the CBSC issued a ruling condemning Levant for his use of the Spanish phrase “chinga to madre,” which is normally translated as “f**k your mother,” during a broadcast criticizing someone the broadcaster had taken a dislike to in December 2011. The CBSC ruling was made in response to complaints by several citizens, including the author of this blog.

The same day, Levant broadcast another episode of his program on the issue, in which he repeated the phrase numerous times, directing it at the four volunteer CBSC panelists who ruled against him, as well as Yours Truly — the only complainant willing to publicly identify himself.

Levant also referred to the CBSC panel members in that broadcast as “idiots,” “stupid,” “a group of nobodies,” a “secretive group of censors,” “a kangaroo court,” “busybodies, know-it-alls and snoops,” and “arrogant little bureaucrats.”

Interlaced among all this childish insult and profanity was a statement on the ruling that Sun News Network was required as a voluntary member of the CBSC to read on the air.

When new complaints were filed with the self-regulating industry-run CBSC about that broadcast, however, the voluntary body kicked them over to the CRTC on the grounds “the comments in question are about the CBSC and identified individuals who volunteer as our Panel members.” The CBSC said in a letter to me at the time that it found itself to be in a conflict of interest and was therefore not in a position to deal with complaints arising from the June 13 broadcast.

Since then, it appears the CRTC has done little investigating. Behind the scenes, I am guessing, the broadcast regulator’s board, which includes Conservative government appointees, was searching for a way to ditch any meaningfully official investigation of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s favoured broadcaster as quickly as possible.

Whatever the reason, according to correspondence sent to me by the CRTC on Sept. 26, the CRTC found that as a result of Sun News Network’s Sept. 17 “apology,” the CBSC was now willing to take the investigation off its hands.

The Sun News apology, which according to the CRTC was read on the air, says in part: “Earlier this summer and last spring, our program The Source broadcast several episodes in which the Spanish phrase ‘Chinga tu madre’ was used. … Sun News and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council received many complaints about our use of the phrase, which has a well-known vulgar meaning. We have listened to those complaints. We understand and accept that it was inappropriate to air that phrase at that time of day and without a viewer warning about vulgar content that might be offensive to some viewers. Sun News does not accept any restriction on our right to use sharp or hard-hitting language as part of our editorial commentary… .” (Emphasis added.)

From this, it is fair to conclude that Sun News Network admits to doing no wrong in its statements about the CSBC volunteer panel members, reserves the right to use such language in the future, asserts its right to ignore regulations that apply to other broadcasters, and disdains the authority of any body that attempts to regulate the use of the public airwaves.

Moreover, the statement contains the implication common to many half-hearted political apologies that the words complained of would only be offensive to some viewers, presumably not the kind of red-blooded Tim Horton’s drinkers who obsessively watch Sun News.

The semi-official state broadcaster’s only concession? They won’t do it again in prime time … without a caution, anyway.

This statement seems to have been reported only by a cable TV industry online newsletter, where the entire apology may be read. Complainants — this one, anyway — were not informed of Sun News Network’s plan to make a statement.

It is difficult to see how this apology solves the CBSC’s former problem with its perception of a conflict of interest, since the Sun News statement does not mention the volunteer CSBC panel members, whom Mr. Levant in effect accused of representing their employers in order to harm Sun News Network, let alone apologize to them for that outrageous inference.

Nevertheless, the CRTC said in its letter to me: “We now understand that Sun News Network has acknowledged to the CBSC the inappropriateness of the language used in several episodes of the program The Source broadcast last spring and earlier this summer and read an apology on air on Sept. 17, 2012, and that the CBSC is satisfied with the apology. Therefore, in the view of the Commission, this matter has been addressed by the CBSC with its member as is appropriate and this is not a situation in which the Commission would involve itself. Accordingly, your complaint is being returned to the CBSC for the CBSC to address.” (Emphasis added.)

As noted, it is not at all clear from this letter how the Sun News statement addresses the CBSC’s concerns. Nor is it clear what the CBSC intends to do next — strike a panel to address the complaints about the June 13 broadcast or merely drop the matter.

Meanwhile, Sun News Network concedes no ground on an additional complaint made by me about Levant’s use of multiple photos of me taken from Internet sources, including this blog and my Facebook page, in a broadcast attacking me for making my original complaint.

While I share Levant’s conviction that my views are of value to his viewers, I inferred a message of intimidation in Sun News Network’s combination of numerous photos with abusive commentary, as well as its publication of private correspondence from me to the CBSC and CRTC. It is reasonable to conclude that this was intended to have the effect of discouraging other Canadians from using the CBSC’s complaints process about Sun News.

In a July 16 letter to the CRTC, Sun News parent Quebecor Media’s senior corporate affairs vice-president responded that its use of photos and disparagement of my complaint correspondence, which had been forwarded to Sun News by the CRTC, was reasonable because I had publicly identified myself as a complainant.

“Under the circumstances, in naming the complainant in the June 13 broadcast, Sun News was simply commenting on matters that the complainant himself had already made public to a wide audience,” wrote J. Serge Sasseville, who also at that time was still arguing the other complaints about Levant’s use of the Spanish obscenity should be rejected. The letter also makes it clear that Sun News feels it is entirely justified in complying with a CBSC ruling in a manner that mocked and insulted the CBSC as long as the required words are actually read aloud. Click here to read the entire letter.

For his part, Levant has moved on to attacking an entire cultural and linguistic group in an on-air screed that the former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress called “contemptible,” “hateful” and “shocking and offensive.”

Bernie M. Farber, writing with others in the National Post, observed of Levant’s Sept. 5 commentary on the Roma people, “the Jewish community understands where such hate can lead.” Sun News Network has since removed Levant’s Sept. 5 commentary from its online video archive.

Levant did not respond to my queries about his Sept. 5 broadcast.

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...