Broadcasts of Police Distress Call Did Not Violate Privacy, but Required Warnings to Viewers, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, March 7, 2012 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released two decisions (1, 2) concerning the broadcasts of police radio transmissions on a number of different stations in June 2011.  The CBSC concluded that the stations did not violate the privacy of the police officer whose voice was heard in the transmissions, but that the stations were required to warn viewers in advance of the disturbing nature of the broadcasts.  Two broadcasters failed to provide warnings, so the CBSC found them in breach of Article 6.3 of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Violence Code.

A police officer conducted a traffic stop and ended up pinned underneath a van.  He was able to radio for help and explain his situation.  He later died in hospital from his injuries.  The CBSC received a complaint from the York Regional Police Chief that the distress call was broadcast on a number of television stations, including Global Toronto (CIII-TV), CHCH-TV, CITY-TV and CTV Toronto (CFTO-TV).  The stations argued that the distress call had been broadcast over the airwaves and was accessible to any member of the public who was tuned into that frequency and was available on the internet shortly after the incident.  In addition, CTV pointed out that it read a transcript rather than broadcasting the actual audio of the police officer’s transmission.  The broadcasters also noted that their reports highlighted the officer’s professionalism and concern for others.

The majority of the CBSC’s Ontario Regional Panel concluded that the broadcasts did not infringe on the officer’s privacy and that the stations did not need to obtain prior consent from the police force because the distress call was transmitted over public airwaves, was not encrypted in any way and was available on the internet shortly after the incident.  One adjudicator dissented on this point.  The Panel unanimously concluded that the reports did not sensationalize the incident.  The Panel also unanimously concluded that the reports about the incident were disturbing and required warnings to viewers about the nature of the content.  Global and CHCH-TV provided the required warnings.  CITY-TV provided no warnings in the first segment about this incident, but did in the second; the first segment therefore violated Article 6.3 of the CAB Violence Code.  Even though CTV only presented a transcript of the officer’s call, it was still required to provide warnings and violated that same Article for its failure to do so.

The CBSC was created in 1990 by Canada’s private broadcasters to administer the codes of standards that they established for their industry.  The CBSC currently administers 7 codes which deal with ethics, equitable portrayal, violence, news and journalistic independence.  Nearly 750 radio stations, satellite radio services, television stations and specialty and pay television services across Canada are members of the Council.

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All CBSC decisions, Codes, links to members' and other web sites, and related information are available on the CBSC's website at www.cbsc.ca. For more information, please contact the CBSC National Chair, Mme Andrée Noël CBSC Executive Director, John MacNab