CTV re a W-FIVE segment (“No Tax”)

NATIONAL CONVENTIONAL TELEVISION PANEL
(CBSC Decision 01/02-0965+)
R. Cohen (Chair), S. Gouin (Vice-Chair), P. O'Neill (Vice-Chair), E. Holmes and J. Levy

THE FACTS

During the April 21, 2002 episode of W-FIVE, CTV ran a lengthy segment entitled “No Tax”, which dealt with a North American movement referred to as the “detaxers”, whose members refuse to pay income tax.  The episode began with a promotional summary of its content, which included considerable detail relating to the segment, which was ultimately introduced by host Tom Clark with the following statement:

Don't pay your income tax.  Sound pretty far-fetched?  Well, tonight a W-FIVE investigation into a growing movement that says that you can do just that, never pay taxes again.  They call themselves “detaxers” and for a price they'll let you in on their secrets.  But as you're about to see, their methods are questionable and just as likely to land their followers in jail.  And then, there may be something far more subversive going on behind the scenes.  Behind their anti-tax message is an anti-government movement and warning signs that they could be dangerous.

On the surface the anti-tax movement seems harmless enough, but experts say it's the first stage of a wider anti-government movement that could get increasingly fanatical, even violent.  They say it's an early warning sign Canada should not ignore.

I am aware of the time they spent with people in the detax movement.  It was literally over a dozen hours of interviews.  They used about 3 or 4 minutes of data from those interviews … and used that material “out-of-context”.

They tied terrorist activity from the U.S. into the Canadian detax debate?  That was just unbelievable.  No one in this movement talks about breaking laws … only enforcing “higher” laws over “lower” laws.  Guarantees of the Magna Carta, the Royal Proclamation of 1776 [sic], and the right of an individual not to belong to an association (Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Canada ascribes) Canada is a “legal fiction” and incorporation, little more … and citizenship is nothing other than an “association.”  Did any of these facts come out?  No. Because the show was intended to make participants look like terrorists.

As a viewer of such an investigative nature show I would expect CTV to report on both sides in an unbiased manner, not to take a side and most importantly not to question the right to free speech when it comes to government issues.

The fact that the W-FIVE researchers and moderators would not give any assurances as to the treatment of and interviews or video material that could have been provided, to the many people across this nation who should have been heard, ought to have been told to the public.

All of this was clearly provided to the show, and yet, they chose to make it a campaign to tie “detaxers” to “McVeigh” and the Oklahoma bombing.

In our opinion, the W-FIVE report about the detax movement was both fair and accurate.  Our documentary hardly took “a side” and included interviews with leading proponents, including Mr. Alex Muljiani and Mr. Eldon Warman.  In addition, we consulted many other leaders of this movement, across Canada and the United States.  We also attended seminars and extensively reviewed literature distributed by detax followers.

In addition, we looked at actions by detax supporters, including attempts to opt out of Canadian society.  More disturbing, however, were examples where proponents have threatened violence against civil servants and the judiciary.  This issue was considered serious enough that a Justice of the Court of Queen's Bench in Manitoba took the rare step of granting an interview on the subject [.].

some of whom who have used violent means to oppose their government – actions such as those of the Montana Freemen, who were involved in an armed-standoff with American law enforcement officials, and Timothy McVeigh, an anti-tax movement adherent who later blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

“No Tax” was produced after extensive research and, as noted above, included consultation with many proponents of the detax movement.  Exhaustive research is a standard we at W-FIVE apply to all of our stories.

However, I do not agree with your claim that our documentary was “government propaganda”.  W-FIVE vigorously defends its journalistic credibility and independence. 

Once again, this report was an important investigation into a movement that suggests citizens of Canada can avoid paying income tax.  Our report was accurate, fair and balanced.  The fact that you may not agree with the concerns raised in our documentary, or the laws of Canada, in no way make our journalism irresponsible, biased or propaganda.

the only conclusion watchers could reasonably make are:

a) detaxers will likely become violent terrorists in the future (as in U.S.A so too in Canada)

b) detaxers always fail and then have all their assets seized

c) that taxes somehow make us better off.

[p]erhaps with a longer exposure and more complete evidence you would have concluded

– detaxers have been successful, and as more Canadians become disillusioned with Justice, government choices and government excesses … even more Canadians will embrace the detax movement … either partially or totally.  [.]

– there is no real evidence of violence of the detaxers in Canada.

– the real aggressors here, those who keep escalating injuries, is [sic] the Canadian government

– in-depth study of the systems lead any thinking man to conclude that a significant portion of our poverty is found embedded in the actual systems of government control [.]

With all your research did you report one instance where a Canadian blew anything up?  I guess you were just fear mongering!  Did you report the success of the defence of “consciousness”.  Did you report on the success of the “free man in truth”.  Those stand as successes for the people with this preference.  Did you report on the burden the taxes were putting on the poor?  How about those who simply administrate the government so much so that the government has chosen to “leave them alone”.

ONE SIDED REPORTING:  The closing of the segment leaves the viewer with one big message:  'Don't challenge the government – or else'.  In a balanced report the viewer would have been encouraged to do his own research.  Further, just listen to the voice of the commentator:  It suggests that everything the detax movement suggests, is completely 'nuts'. In a balanced report the voice and suggestive commentary would have been neutral.

MIXING UP FACTS:  To align the majority of this movement, which is very peaceful and law abiding, with extremists and even the Oklahoma City bomber McVeigh must be considered a cheap-shot even by the biggest stretch of the imagination.  Instead of asking pointed questions which encompass the detax movement's concerns and expecting the government and experts to comment on specifically, W-FIVE mixed images of terrorists with those of seminar participants who only want one thing:  Clarification in a government created jungle of laws.

has to do with the fact that many of those who indicated they had sent materials to you received no phone calls, and received their materials back unopened.  You say your program undertook extensive research … please tell me exactly what research you did.

Just tell me which ones you reviewed, and I will tell you which ones you didn't review that would have shed a far different light on the subject matter.

that “anti-tax” and “anti-government” ought to be said in with the same breath is simply a huge blunder.  Are you saying that dissent is equal to criminal activity?  That tax avoidance is unlawful?

accountants, lawyers, doctors, business persons, mothers, husbands, wives, daughters, sons, at least one person over 80, and many below 25, Christians, Hindus, Islam, Jewish, atheists, agnostics, straight and gay, white, brown and black, PhD's, post-grads, and persons with less than high school educations.

It shall be the responsibility of member stations to ensure that news shall be represented with accuracy and without bias.  The member station shall satisfy itself that the arrangements made for obtaining news ensure this result.  It shall also ensure that news broadcasts are not editorial.  News shall not be selected for the purpose of furthering or hindering either side of any controversial public issue, nor shall it be designed by the beliefs or opinions or desires of the station management, the editor or others engaged in its preparation or delivery.  The fundamental purpose of news dissemination in a democracy is to enable people to know what is happening, and to understand events so that they may form their own conclusions.

Therefore, nothing in the foregoing shall be understood as preventing news broadcasters from analysing and elucidating news so long as such analysis or comment is clearly labelled as such and kept distinct from regular news presentations.  Member stations will, insofar as practical, endeavour to provide editorial opinion which shall be clearly labelled as such and kept entirely distinct from regular broadcasts of news or analysis and opinion.

It is recognized that the full, fair and proper presentation of news, opinion, comment and editorial is the prime and fundamental responsibility of the broadcast publisher.

Recognizing in a democracy the necessity of presenting all sides of a public issue, it shall be the responsibility of member stations to treat fairly, all subjects of a controversial nature.  Time shall be allotted with due regard to all the other elements of balanced program schedules, and to the degree of public interest in the questions presented.  Recognizing that healthy controversy is essential to the maintenance of democratic institutions, the broadcast publisher will endeavour to encourage presentation of news and opinion on any controversy which contains an element of the public interest.

Broadcast journalists will inform the public in an accurate, comprehensive and fair manner about events and issues of importance.

Broadcast journalists will present the news and public affairs without distortion.  Interviews may be edited provided that the meaning is not changed or misrepresented.  Broadcast journalists will not present news that is rehearsed or re-enacted without informing the audience.  Newsrooms should take steps to ensure the authenticity of amateur video and audio tape before broadcasting it.  Editorials and commentary will be identified as such.

[t]hat the broadcaster did not include all of the facts and facets of the case does not lead inexorably to the conclusion that the report was inaccurate.  In the Council's view, such comprehensiveness in news and public affairs reports is not required, nor even reasonable, particularly when one takes into account the limited time available in which to bring any matter to the small screen.  While such a limitation never entitles a broadcaster to be misleading, it does entitle it to simplify or telescope a report in a fair and reasonable way to fit the constraints of the medium.

THE DECISION

The National Conventional Television Panel considered the complaint under the following provisions of the CAB Code of Ethics and the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics, which read as follows:

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 6 (News):

It shall be the responsibility of member stations to ensure that news shall be represented with accuracy and without bias. The member station shall satisfy itself that the arrangements made for obtaining news ensure this result. It shall also ensure that news broadcasts are not editorial. News shall not be selected for the purpose of furthering or hindering either side of any controversial public issue, nor shall it be designed by the beliefs or opinions or desires of the station management, the editor or others engaged in its preparation or delivery. The fundamental purpose of news dissemination in a democracy is to enable people to know what is happening, and to understand events so that they may form their own conclusions.

Therefore, nothing in the foregoing shall be understood as preventing news broadcasters from analysing and elucidating news so long as such analysis or comment is clearly labelled as such and kept distinct from regular news presentations. Member stations will, insofar as practical, endeavour to provide editorial opinion which shall be clearly labelled as such and kept entirely distinct from regular broadcasts of news or analysis and opinion.

It is recognized that the full, fair and proper presentation of news, opinion, comment and editorial is the prime and fundamental responsibility of the broadcast publisher.

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 7 (Controversial Public Issues):

Recognizing in a democracy the necessity of presenting all sides of a public issue, it shall be the responsibility of member stations to treat fairly, all subjects of a controversial nature. Time shall be allotted with due regard to all the other elements of balanced program schedules, and to the degree of public interest in the questions presented. Recognizing that healthy controversy is essential to the maintenance of democratic institutions, the broadcast publisher will endeavour to encourage presentation of news and opinion on any controversy which contains an element of the public interest.

RTNDA Code of Ethics, Article 1 (Accuracy):

Broadcast journalists will inform the public in an accurate, comprehensive and fair manner about events and issues of importance.

RTNDA Code of Ethics, Article 3 (Authenticity):

Broadcast journalists will present the news and public affairs without distortion. Interviews may be edited provided that the meaning is not changed or misrepresented. Broadcast journalists will not present news that is rehearsed or re-enacted without informing the audience. Newsrooms should take steps to ensure the authenticity of amateur video and audio tape before broadcasting it. Editorials and commentary will be identified as such.

The National Conventional Television Panel read all of the correspondence and viewed a tape of the April 21 episode of W-FIVE. The Panel concludes that the report was generally fair and accurate and not in breach of any of the above-quoted provisions.

The Issues

The four original letters of complaint and the replies raised several different issues, some of which relate to the underlying controversy as to the legitimacy of the detax movement and not to the content of the broadcast. The Panel’s fundamental concerns relate to the presentation of the broadcast and not to the underlying debate on the philosophical merits of the detax position. It is not, and cannot be, the responsibility of the broadcaster (much less the CBSC) to sort out those philosophical arguments. The broadcaster’s responsibility lies in the presentation of arguments that permit the viewer to understand the material issues and to arrive at his or her conclusions on that basis. To the extent that the show as broadcast has left the detax proponents feeling unrequited, it appears to the Panel that the complainants are simply reiterating what they would have wished that the broadcaster include in its report in order to “make a better case” for their position.

In a similar situation, namely, in TVA re J.E. “Crusade for a Presbytery” (CBSC Decision 97/98-0555, September 24, 1998), the Quebec Regional Panel dealt with a complaint about a report on the botched sale of a presbytery and the “controversial” decision of a Quebec Superior Court on the issue. TVA’s report had been boiled down to “a contract is a contract” and highlighted the hardship imposed on the willing purchasers by this decision. The complaint came from the allegedly reneging vendors who presented a detailed listing of all the facts supporting their position. While the complainants alleged bias and inaccuracy in the report, the Quebec Panel concluded

[t]hat the broadcaster did not include all of the facts and facets of the case does not lead inexorably to the conclusion that the report was inaccurate. In the Council’s view, such comprehensiveness in news and public affairs reports is not required, nor even reasonable, particularly when one takes into account the limited time available in which to bring any matter to the small screen. While such a limitation never entitles a broadcaster to be misleading, it does entitle it to simplify or telescope a report in a fair and reasonable way to fit the constraints of the medium.

The Panel has found nothing in the broadcaster’s approach to the subject of detaxation that has inappropriately telescoped or simplified the issues and it will limit its evaluation of the complaints to those issues rather than the merits of the detaxers’ case regarding the underlying issues.

Time and Opportunity to Present the Detaxers’ Position

Leaving aside for the moment the issue of the link to U.S. violence which is dealt with below, the Panel finds that the detaxers were provided ample opportunity to state their case. To begin, it was the detaxers who were first provided the time and opportunity to lay out their position. In that sense, it could justifiably be argued that the initial philosophical impact was theirs. Messrs. Muljiani and Warman “had the floor”. They staked out the justification for their movement’s position. They raised the issues of Magna Carta and applicable (or, as they argued, inapplicable or irrelevant) legal systems. Ms. Rosenberg, one of the individuals who lost her anti-taxation case, was permitted to express her perspective on the taxation system and, at the end of the segment, Muljiani and Warman were again given the opportunity to comment on the program’s thesis, relating to the connection between detaxation, anti-government views and violence.

Moreover, the detaxers were given the platform to enunciate a number of unusual and unconventional positions relating to issues like drivers being “artificial persons”, the primacy of the Magna Carta over Canadian fiscal legislation, the Timothy McVeigh fall guy theory and the like. Overall, the Panel has not the slightest doubt that the detaxers were given ample time and opportunity to express their viewpoints. As noted above, the broadcaster was under no obligation to provide time for every argument the detaxers wished to raise. Television is not print. Nor is it the Internet. The detaxers may well be able to expound on their arguments in those media that provide fewer, if any, limitations of space or time. On television, on the other hand, they must fit within the constraints of the medium. That being said, they were right to expect that the broadcaster would allow them to put their case. It did and they did. CTV had no further obligation in this respect.

Detaxer Successes?

The Panel notes that two of the complainants allege that the report incorrectly leaves the impression that detaxers always fail. Actually, the Panel is unconvinced that that is the impression that is left when one considers that at least four detaxer “gurus” were shown, two of whom were interviewed and one of whom was allowed to state: “I don’t [pay taxes]. I haven’t been thrown in jail. I haven’t had anybody show up at my door. And I’m not worried about it.” In counterpoint, two specific cases were presented in the W-FIVE report where detaxers were prosecuted for not paying their taxes; in one case, a Winnipeg couple lost their home and other assets and, in another, “Sir Daniel Kingsly Lear” was identified as someone serving a prison term of 5 years. Moreover, the Minister pointed out that there are 10-20 successful fiscal prosecutions posted on the CCRA web site every month relating to individuals who had refused to pay their taxes. The detaxers had ample opportunity to cite contrary examples, either on air or in their letters of complaint. With the exception of “Reverend” Muljiani, not a single example was proffered.

The Broadcaster’s Responsibility to Include Extraordinary Perspectives

There are, among the many assertions of the complainants, sweeping suggestions relating to poverty, the harmful role of taxation, the government’s right to levy taxes, and so on. There is no need for the broadcaster to raise these political philosophies or government policies or to deal with them in any way. W-FIVE’s report dealt with a very specific and narrow subject.

In any event, the Panel sees no reason to conclude that the broadcaster ought to be presenting such extraordinary perspectives in order to balance its program on the subject of detaxers. In its view this is patently unreasonable. If balance depended on the obligation of a broadcaster to reach out to exponents of every contrary viewpoint (however spurious), it would put an effective halt to dealing with controversial public issues within a reasonable time frame, both as to the preparation and the broadcast of such segments as that before the Panel today.

W-FIVE as Government Propaganda

Finally, the Panel rejects out of hand the argument of three of the four complainants that the segment was in any way “government propaganda”. That is simply an untenable position. The fact that the information in the segment does not appear to support the position of the detaxers does not lead inexorably to the conclusion that the producers are slavishly parroting the position of the government. The fact that the weight of the argument may lead viewers to conclude that the position of the government in the fiscal area is correct does not mean that the broadcaster is responsible for taking the position of the government. After all, just because the government has a position does not mean that that position is necessarily wrong. That would be a facile argument.

The Link Between the Canadian Detax Movement and U.S. Terrorism

The issue that appears to most concern the complainants centres on the implied link drawn by the show between the detaxers and violence. Just prior to and then following the commercial break, the piece began to emphasize the more militant, anti-government view of some detaxers and the potential for violence. A number of different people were interviewed in support of this contention, including lawyer and author Warren Kinsella, who alleged that the detax movement was prime recruitment territory for more radicalized anti-government groups, Judges Jeffery Oliphant and Allan Fay, and the President of the Union of Tax Employees, who described the detax movement as “sinister” and relayed cases of death threats from anti-government activists and being held at gunpoint by individuals quoting detax propaganda. Moreover, an internal report from the RCMP, which warned of “increased militancy” by anti-tax and anti-government groups, was also presented. The producers then segued to the United States and described the 30-year escalation of the anti-tax, anti-government movements as exemplified by the Posse Comitatus and the Montana Freemen for which archival footage was shown. Warren Kinsella went so far as to indicate that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, had started out as an anti-tax protester. This statement was also reinforced by the producer’s use of video tape of McVeigh and of the bombing’s aftermath, footage which was repeated later in the report.

In general, W-FIVE clearly attempted to build its case that, in the fundamental anti-government attitude implied in the anti-tax movement, there are the seeds of violence. To some extent, it succeeded in bringing examples of threatened violence in the Canadian context to the fore. None of them, however, exceeded the “threat” threshold. The Panel expects that the producers did not find this a convincing enough conclusion to attain. Not surprisingly, they reached to the south and raised the example referred to above. It was only in the American environment that they could find examples of threats converted to reality; however, even that reality seemed not to have gone far enough for their taste. To achieve that result, the program imported the not well-known example of mass murderer Timothy McVeigh as detaxer, illustrated by references to the destroyed Murragh Building in Oklahoma City. Without making any attempt to explain the political and legislative differences between Canada and the United States that might account for such distinctiveness in anti-government attitudes and the occasional violent nature of these, it presented the logical progression as potentially pertinent to Canadian viewers.

While the Panel certainly does not find this tactic in breach of any of the foregoing Code provisions, it does consider the applicability of the conclusion somewhat tentative, if not weak, with respect to the Canadian experience. And to the extent that the Panel has any concern with the episode, it is with the pertinence of the use of the extreme visual images of the results of Timothy McVeigh’s murderous rampage. It considers, though, that all of the elements of the broadcaster’s “argument” in this respect were so clearly and accurately labelled (as American or Canadian) that the audience members were entirely free to reach their own conclusions regarding the applicability of the American historical examples to the Canadian future. There is no Code breach here. After all, the broadcaster has respected one of the primordial principles of the CAB Code of Ethics, namely, the “fundamental purpose of news dissemination in a democracy is to enable people to know what is happening, and to understand events so that they may form their own conclusions. [Emphasis added.]”

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In addition to assessing the relevance of the Codes to the complaint, the CBSC always assesses the responsiveness of the broadcaster to the substance of the complaint. It is clear in the present files that the broadcaster’s Senior Producer (W-FIVE) has been extremely thorough in his individualized responses to the various complainants. The care he took to reflect each group of concerns, despite the multiplicity of complaints and their expressed hostility for the segment, was admirable. Nothing more could have been expected. There is no breach of the obligation of responsiveness on this occasion.

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.