CHOI-FM re Maurais Live (welfare reform)

QUEBEC REGIONAL PANEL
CBSC Decision 11/12-0609
June 22, 2012
D. Meloul (Chair), G. Moisan (Vice-Chair), A. H. Caron, V. Dubois, M. Ille, J. Pennefather (ad hoc)

THE FACTS

Maurais Live is a talk show broadcast on CHOI-FM (Radio X, 98.1 FM, Quebec City) from 9:00 am to noon Monday to Friday. Dominic Maurais is the host and, along with his co-host J.-C. Ouellet, he discusses news and current events.  They occasionally take calls from listeners.

On May 2, 2011 at 11:10 am, Maurais interviewed Shaunna O’Connell, a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in the United States. The government in Massachusetts had recently passed a measure that prevented welfare recipients from spending their benefits on alcohol, tobacco and lottery tickets.  O’Connell appeared on the program to discuss these welfare reform measures.  In response to questions from Maurais, she explained how the law works and the motivation for it, namely, to stop abuse of the welfare system.

O’Connell did not speak French, so Maurais conducted the interview in English. For the benefit of CHOI-FM’s listening audience, every few minutes or so, co-host Ouellet would translate into French what had just been said by Maurais and O’Connell.  Ouellet’s translations were paraphrased summaries rather than word-for-word interpretive services.  At one point, O’Connell explained that reports had revealed that some welfare recipients were using their benefits for unnecessary items and that the legislation was intended to punish people who use the welfare system for “inappropriate purchases” so that the money could go to people who really need it.  When Ouellet translated this portion of the discussion, he added [translation] “but probably it’s the children who pay, who don’t have access to sensible food or decent shelter.”

Both hosts injected their own views at other points during the segment. For example, Maurais introduced the interview by saying that, in reference to the Massachusetts law, [translation] “it would be fantastic to apply it here”.  He repeated that opinion at the end of the interview, suggesting that, in Quebec, they should not celebrate the welfare lifestyle.  He took calls from listeners, one of whom described his own experiences as a welfare recipient.  That caller made comments such as [translation] “Where’s the pride in it?” and “in one neighbourhood […] in the welfare area […] they hang around, they drink, they fight, they wrecked my car.” (A complete transcript of the segment can be found in Appendix A, in French only).

The CBSC received a complaint dated November 8, 2011 from an organization representing welfare recipients in Quebec known as the Front commun des personnes assistées sociales du Québec (FCPASQ), more than six months after the initial broadcast.  The FCPASQ alleged that the broadcast contained [translation] “false and misleading information”.  The organization complained that the hosts had added their own opinions into the “translations” of O’Connell’s answers and had made discriminatory statements about welfare recipients.  The FCPASQ objected to the fact that Maurais had implied that similar abuses of the welfare system were occurring in Quebec as those in Massachusetts and that he suggested that the welfare “lifestyle” is “celebrated” in Quebec. It also expressed concerns about the comments made by the one caller, which characterized welfare recipients in a negative light.

Prior to contacting the CBSC, the FCPASQ had sent a letter directly to CHOI-FM. The station provided a short reply to the complainant, simply indicating that it took all complaints seriously and had discussed the matter with the hosts.  Once the CBSC got involved in the matter, CHOI-FM provided the CBSC with a copy of that response.  The FCPASQ submitted its Ruling Request on December 20, 2011. (The full text of all correspondence can be found in Appendix B, in French only).

THE DECISION

The Quebec Regional Panel examined the complaint under Clause 6 of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics which reads as follows:

Clause 6 – Full, Fair and Proper Presentation

It is recognized that the full, fair and proper presentation of news, opinion, comment and editorial is the prime and fundamental responsibility of each broadcaster. This principle shall apply to all radio and television programming, whether it relates to news, public affairs, magazine, talk, call-in, interview or other broadcasting formats in which news, opinion, comment or editorial may be expressed by broadcaster employees, their invited guests or callers.

The Panel Adjudicators read all of the correspondence and listened to the challenged segment. The Panel concludes that the broadcast did not violate Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics.

First, the Panel Adjudicators point out that, in their opinion, the complaint was filed quite late. Broadcasters are required to retain logger files for a period of 28 days after which they may erase or destroy them, or more likely, use them to record other programs, thereby effectively erasing the previous content.  The letter sent by the complainant to CHOI-FM was dated October 4, 2011, i.e. more than five months after the broadcast at issue, and the complaint filed with the CBSC, dated November 8, came more than six months afterwards.

Nevertheless, the Panel Adjudicators examined the file on its merits. They noted that the hosts could have advised their listeners that the interview would be conducted in English and summarized in French rather than use the term “translate”.  The broadcaster was not, however, required to translate this interview and the summary version provided by the co-host reflected the guest’s answers with the exception of the aforementioned comment regarding children.  The Panel also notes that it would have been preferable that the hosts make it clear to their audience that they were adding comments of their own as they summarized what their guest was saying.  But, there again, not doing so does not automatically constitute a Code violation.  For such a violation to occur, the comments made must distort what the guest has said and their nature must be such as to mislead the public.  That is not the case here.  The Panel thus unanimously concludes that CHOI-FM did not violate the provisions of Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics by summarizing in French the exchange that took place in English between the host and his guest and then adding their own comments.  The Panel nevertheless reminds CHOI-FM that advisories are advisable in such cases.

Moreover, the Panel considers that the comments made by the hosts and one caller regarding abuses of the welfare system did not violate the Code because the hosts did not say that all welfare recipients abuse the system.  In the view of the Panel, this is a legitimate criticism of the lax administration of welfare programs.[1]  Also, with respect to the comments made by the caller mentioned earlier, he also did not make any generalizations about welfare recipients and even admitted that he had at one time relied on social assistance when he was going through a rough patch, adding [translation] “it’s quite all right”.  The Panel thus unanimously concludes that the comments of the hosts and one listener did not constitute a violation of Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics regarding full, fair and proper presentation.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In all CBSC decisions, the Panels assess the broadcaster’s response to the complainant. The broadcaster need not agree with the complainant’s position, but it must respond in a courteous, thoughtful and thorough manner.  In this case, CHOI-FM provided an adequate, albeit brief, response to the complainant given the considerable delay between the broadcast and the filing of the complaint.  The broadcaster fulfilled its obligations of responsiveness and nothing further is required in this regard in this instance.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. It may be reported, announced or read by the station against which the complaint had originally been made; however, in the case of a favourable decision, the station is under no obligation to announce the result.

[1] See the following decisions in which the CBSC determined that criticism about political views and institutions fall within the ambit of freedom of expression: CJMF-FM re the program L’heure de vérité avec André Arthur (CBSC Decision 99/00-0240, August 29, 2000); CJMF-FM re an interview on Bouchard en parle (CBSC Decision 04/05-1852, February 3, 2006); CJMF-FM re a commentary on Bouchard en parle (CBSC Decision 05/06-0326, February 3, 2006); and TQS re an episode of L’Avocat et le diable (accommodations) (CBSC Decision 05/06-1605+, December 11, 2006).