CJRC-AM re an interview by Daniel Séguin on L’Outaouais ce matin

QUEBEC REGIONAL PANEL
T. Rajan (Vice-Chair), R. Cohen (ad hoc), B. Guérin, B. Kenemy, G. Moisan

THE FACTS

L’Outaouais ce matin aired on CJRC-AM (Gatineau) weekday mornings from 5:30 to 10:00 am. The host of the program, Daniel Séguin, discussed current events and occasionally interviewed people in the news.

During the broadcast of August 10, 2004, beginning at approximately 7:00 am, Séguin conducted an interview with Patrice Demers, the president of Genex Communications. At the time of the broadcast, Genex Communications was the owner of a Quebec City radio licensee, CHOI-FM, that had made headlines when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) refused to renew its licence on grounds that had been understood publicly as resulting from the consistent broadcast of offensive, abusive or discriminatory content directed against individuals or identifiable groups. On August 10, CHOI-FM was holding a mass rally on Parliament Hill to record the objections to the CRTC ruling of the protestors it had bussed to Ottawa from Quebec City. Demers appeared on Séguin’s program to discuss that issue.

Séguin began the interview with a brief description of the CHOI-FM situation. He then proceeded to ask Demers what would be occurring at the protest, who was there to support the station and what the company hoped to achieve with the demonstration. At that point, Séguin suggested that CHOI-FM had consistently refused to conform to CRTC rules. Demers defended his station’s position, saying that that was simply Séguin’s perception of the issue. The discussion then became somewhat heated, with Séguin accusing CHOI-FM of broadcasting hateful remarks and ruining people’s reputations. The following exchange took place (the full transcript of the interview can be found in Appendix A, available in French only):

[translation]

Séguin: And I hope, and you’re not talking about freedom of speech to the people you destroyed on the air, and the comments you made. I don’t call them responsible comments, Mr. Demers and I was really looking forward to conducting an interview with you and telling you literally to fuck off, because I think you have overstepped everything that you could have overstepped and I was looking forward to telling you that, and that is my choice.

Demers: [Inaudible] my hat is off to you, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Séguin: Well, that’s right. I don’t know what I’m talking about Mr. Demers. You know, you seem to be the only one who knows what they’re talking about. And I’m happy to tell you to frig off this morning. That’s my choice isn’t it?

Demers: Ah, yes. You have the right. As far as we are concerned, we accept that you have the right to do it.

Séguin: So I’m saying it. And I’m telling you that what you did on the air was totally horrible. You screwed people, shot them down; people who had no way of defending themselves. And it’s my turn to tell you to fuck off Mr. Demers, and I do so with pleasure this morning. I hope the CRTC puts the boots to you and that they will pursue the matter and nail you to the wall.

After a few other brief remarks, the interview ended. Following a commercial break, Séguin apologized for his use of coarse language:

[translation]

Séguin: I apologize for my offensive remarks. I, um, it doesn’t override what I thought, what I essentially want to say. It’s now 7:35; here’s the latest on traffic with Valérie Clairoux.

After another commercial break, Séguin offered his opinion on the issue, namely, that freedom of expression must have its limits.

The CBSC received 11 complaints about this broadcast for which two of the complainants requested that the CBSC pursue the matter. The complainants objected to the use of the phrase “envoyer chier” ([translation] “fuck off”) uttered by Séguin during the interview (the text of all correspondence can be found in Appendix B, available in French only).

CJRC provided the following response to each of the complainants:

[translation]

You take issue with Daniel Séguin for having made improper comments regarding Mr. Demers, specifically by concluding his exchange by saying, “fuck off”, as some CHOI-FM hosts have regularly said.

Following your comments, we listened to the complete interview, not merely the comment to which you refer in your complaint, in order to put the interview in context. We noted that in the minutes following the interview, Mr. Séguin apologized for his offensive remarks. We also listened to the comment made by Daniel Séguin on August 18, 2004 when he recalled the interview of August 10, 2004 and specified that he had addressed Mr. Demers in a fashion similar to that used by CHOI-FM. Mr. Séguin broadcast a CHOI-FM promotional message to that effect during which the following statement is made: “C’est nous autres les numéros 1, toutes les autres allez chier” ([translation] “We’re number 1 and the rest of you can fuck off.”)

We also reviewed decisions issued by the CBSC, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission and the Quebec Press Council on the same issue. We noted that in cases where offensive remarks similar to the ones you relate were used, the bodies concerned laid the blame on those who expressed them, and that in each case the expression was used in a very vulgar fashion in its most literal sense.

, the Petit Larousse and the Robert of contemporary Quebec give that expression the figurative and familiar sense of “frig off”. We are of the opinion that is the sense to be given to what Daniel Séguin said, since he also used the expression “frig off” in his interview with Mr. Demers and in the comments he made immediately after. It is important to remember that Daniel Séguin contextualized on several occasions during and after the interview in order to make it clear to CJRC-AM listeners that he had only repeated an expression used by certain hosts at CHOI-FM.

CJRC-AM is a major radio undertaking in the Outaouais market and it has always demonstrated concern for the quality of its programming intended for a large audience. We are sorry that the remarks made on the air by one of CJRC-AM’s hosts have offended you.

One complainant expressed his dissatisfaction with the broadcaster’s response in the following terms:

[translation]

I have no other choice but to say that I am extremely disappointed by the arguments put forward by CJRC. In fact, how can such remarks be justified by saying that the CHOI hosts use this coarse language? To my way of thinking, that does not constitute justification. Imagine if people acted according to this principle. Every word and action of the vilest sort would become justifiable.

Furthermore, I am able to grasp the sense of the expression “fuck off” without consulting a dictionary. […] Therefore, I deride CJRC’s feeble argument on that score.

I am also of the opinion that their reply is not worthy of an undertaking that has “demonstrated concern for the quality of its programming”. I fear they display a considerable lack of responsibility and the people who work for them certainly do not deserve the titles of host or journalist. They are no more than gossips.

When I read their answer, what sprang to mind was a child’s voice expressing with all the conviction possible at a young age, the thundering affirmation that “It’s him who said it, so he’s it!”

The second complainant, who also requested that the CBSC pursue the matter, argued that the broadcaster had not taken the complaint seriously.

THE DECISION

The Quebec Regional Panel reviewed the complaint on the basis of the following clauses of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Code of Ethics:

CAB Code of Ethics, 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.

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 9 – Radio Broadcasting

Recognizing that radio is a local medium and, consequently, reflective of local community standards, programming broadcast on a local radio station shall take into consideration the generally recognized access to programming content available in the market, the demographic composition of the station’s audience, and the station’s format. Within this context, particular care shall be taken by radio broadcasters to ensure that programming on their stations does not contain:

c) Unduly coarse and offensive language.

The Quebec Panel reviewed all of the correspondence and listened to a tape of the broadcast. The Panel considers that, for having used certain expressions, the broadcaster is in breach of the foregoing provisions of the CAB Code of Ethics.

Are There Limits to the Language of Criticism?

By his own admission, the host was looking forward to the opportunity to tell the president of CHOI-FM exactly what he thought of the practices of the Quebec City station’s hosts on the day of the CHOI-FM-inspired rally in Ottawa. During the course of the interview with Patrice Demers, Daniel Séguin was highly critical of the Quebec City hosts “[translation] who squarely overstepped the way of doing things.” To Demers he said that, in accordance with the rules administered by the CRTC, “[translation] there are policies to be followed and you did not follow them.” Lumping the station’s hosts and president together, he added, in defence of the “[translation] people you destroyed on the air,” his perspective.

[translation] So, I’m saying it. And I’m telling you that what you did on the air was totally horrible. You screwed people, shot them down; people who had no way of defending themselves. And it’s my turn to tell you to piss off Mr. Demers, and I do so with pleasure this morning.

The Panel fully appreciates that the host, Daniel Séguin, was neither objective nor unbiased. Nor did he hold back. As he admitted candidly to his guest (and his listeners), “[translation] I’ll show you my colours.” And he did.

[translation] I’m very happy that they are shutting you up, that they are finally getting rid of you. […] I hope the CRTC puts the boots to you and that they will pursue the matter and nail you to the wall.

The complainants did not express any concern over the fact that the host “took a position”; their issue relates to specific terminology employed by Daniel Séguin to express his viewpoint. The Panel does, however, consider that it is worth reiterating the position of CBSC Panels on the issue of the objectivity of a host. It is, simply, that such matters are essentially the responsibility of the broadcaster to decide. As the Ontario Regional Panel said, in its decision in CKTB-AM re the John Michael Show (Middle East Commentary) (CBSC Decision 01/02-0651, June 7, 2002),

There is not one “flavour” that is right and the other wrong. The choice is that of the broadcaster (which has responsibilities to exercise in either event). In the Canadian environment, the public broadcasters appear to choose their call-in programs from the greater audience participation category while the private stations generally choose that form of show involving more aggressive participation by the host. Public radio may be said to aim more at the provision of information while private radio’s talk shows are intended to be livelier and more provocative. To accomplish this goal, the latter are not likely to feature a host without a point of view. The constant central figure does not simply play the role of referee, gingerly guiding the callers around the electronic forum into which they have stepped.

The Panel also considers that the bulk of the dialogue between Daniel Séguin and Patrice Demers was substantive and a valid interchange of perspectives on the issues one would have expected to encounter on a CHOI-FM-related discussion. It touched on freedom of expression, the nature and purpose of the CRTC, the Broadcasting Act, the responsibilities of broadcasters, the purpose of the large demonstration on Parliament Hill, the number and nature of the CHOI-FM petitioners and supporters, the anticipated results of their presence in Ottawa, and other related matters. The tone of the dialogue escalated, apparently because Daniel Séguin had lain in wait for the opportunity to confront his quarry in his (the interviewer’s) den. A few (admittedly expected) denials or disagreements on the part of Patrice Demers were all that Séguin required to pounce. As the dialogue quoted indicates, the host did so in pointed terms, relying in part on his disagreement of the style that he had seen on the part of Quebec City radio station, its readiness, he asserted, to use harsh language, even with respect to those not present to defend themselves, even if it had the effect of ruining careers. Until this point, the Quebec Regional Panel believes that the host was within his rights. Such, it appears, was also the attitude of the interviewee, who would even have accepted the more contentious statements that are the subject of this decision. (“[translation] Ah, yes. You have the right. As far as we are concerned, we accept that you have the right to do it.”)

Although his attack was harsh, Séguin’s target was both present and a practitioner of the art of giving little or no quarter. In the match-up, it is clear that Daniel Séguin was faring well and had the upper hand. It is particularly for this reason that the Quebec Panel does not understand why the host descended from the relatively high road to the level of a personal attack using the expressions “[translation] I was really looking forward to […] telling you literally to fuck off” and “[translation] And it’s my turn to tell you to fuck off Mr. Demers, and I do so with pleasure this morning.” In the entire dialogue, it is here and only here that the Quebec Panel takes issue with the broadcast of that morning. The Panel considers that the use of the two foregoing expressions was overkill and, in terms of the broadcaster’s ethical obligations, unduly coarse and offensive, on the one hand, and improper, on the other. The Panel recognizes fully that Daniel Séguin wished to give Patrice Demers some of his station’s own medicine but this Panel did not find similar language acceptable in CHOI-FM re Le monde parallèle de Jeff Fillion (CBSC Decision 02/03-0115, July 17, 2003) and it does not find it acceptable in the present case. It considers the use of the coarse and offensive language cited in this paragraph in breach of Clause 9 of the CAB Code of Ethics. It also considers that the use of such aggressive language to insult his invited guest was improper and in breach of Clause 6 of the Code.

The Panel does acknowledge that Séguin attempted to backtrack and to excuse himself for his “[translation] offensive remarks” but it was a case of “too little, too late”. Moreover, the “apology” was only half-hearted in that he continued in the next breath to say “[translation] it doesn’t override what I thought, what I essentially want to say.”

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In all CBSC decisions, the Council’s Panels evaluate the broadcaster’s responsiveness to the complainants. Although the broadcaster is under no obligation to agree with the complainant, it is expected that the station’s representatives charged with replying to complaints will address the complainant’s concerns in a thorough and respectful manner. In the present case, the Panel finds that the General Manager’s response was very thoughtful. She researched the challenged expression, cited dictionary definitions and attempted to make her case, as she, needless to say, had every right to do. It did not satisfy the complainants but all matters that reach this stage of CBSC adjudication have this as their common characteristic. Notwithstanding that, the Panel considers that CJRC-AM has fully met its responsiveness responsibilities of CBSC membership.

CONTENT OF THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE DECISION

CJRC-AM is required to: 1) announce this decision, in the following terms, once during peak listening hours within three days following the release of this decision and once more within seven days following the release of this decision during the time period in which L’Outaouais ce matin was broadcast; 2) within fourteen days following the broadcast of the announcements, to provide written confirmation of the airing of the statement to the complainants; and 3) to provide the CBSC with that written confirmation and with air check copies of the broadcasts of the two announcements which must be made by CJRC-AM.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found that CJRC has breached provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Code of Ethics. In its broadcast of L’Outaouais ce matin of August 10, 2004, the host’s interview of a Quebec City radio station’s president went beyond the issues of substance on which the host and the guest had understandable disagreement. The broadcast of unduly coarse and offensive supplementary comments was in breach of Clause 9 of the Code of Ethics and the use of such terms in a personal attack on the guest was inappropriate and in breach of Clause 6 of the Code.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.