Global re an episode of Going Fishing

national conventional television panel
R. Cohen (Chair), R. Deverell, M. Omelus (ad hoc), P. O’Neill

THE FACTS

Going Fishing is a half-hour fishing series hosted by Darryl (Cronzy) Choronzey.  The program follows Cronzy as he fishes in various locations across Canada and discusses a wide variety of issues related to angling.  The show airs on Saturday mornings at 8:30 am on Global, as well as other television broadcasters across Canada.  On the September 29, 2007 episode, Cronzy had as his guest John Tory, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario.  An Ontario provincial election had been officially called on September 10, the election date having been set for October 10.

During much of the program, Cronzy and his politician guest fished, and discussed fishing tips and techniques.  Cronzy also periodically asked Tory about his party’s position on various issues relating to fish and wildlife management (a complete transcript of the entire episode can be found in Appendix A).  For example, early on in the program, Cronzy asked what the Conservatives’ new fish and wildlife policy was.  Tory explained that, if elected, his party would match every dollar from the sale of fishing and hunting permits and put the money towards fish and wildlife management.  Other questions asked by Cronzy related to policies on the bear hunt, natural resource conservation, and fish hatcheries.  They also made jokes about Tory’s Liberal opponents, such as catching fish with a “McGuinty grip” and that a fish “went down, just like the Liberals”.  Towards the end of the program, Cronzy said, “Listen, I’m not telling you who to vote for” and then contradicted his verbal statement by pointing at John Tory in an obvious and exaggerated manner.  In his concluding remarks, Cronzy also urged viewers, “When you go to the polls, whether you’re voting federally or provincially, think of your fish and your wildlife, okay?  Get some of these clowns out of politics and get the good guys in.”

The CBSC received a complaint about John Tory’s appearance on the September 29 Going Fishing episode in a letter dated September 30.  The complainant outlined his concerns as follows (the full text of all correspondence can be found in Appendix B):

Global Television, more specifically the Darryl Cronzy Goin’ Fishin’ television show aired Sept. 29/07.  The program was a 20 minute commercial for the Tory party and I believe that fishing programs are supposed to be about fishing.  If the CRTC prohibits using advertisers’ names during the program then it must certainly restrict political advertising during an election campaign.

Global replied with a letter dated October 16:

In your letter you specifically referred to the content of the episode as being “a 20 minute commercial for the Tory party.”  While the interpretation of such matters is subjective, we do acknowledge that the content was not screened prior to airing and that a viewer might interpret the content as favouring one party over another.  To the extent that this has occurred, we sincerely apologize and state that it was not our intention to favour one candidate or party in airing the program.

Further, we do have a screening process in place whereby most programs are carefully screened to ensure that they do not contravene our industry guidelines or governing regulations.  In this instance, and completely inadvertently, the program was not screened prior to airing.  Rest assured that we are taking measures to ensure that we remain compliant with our regulatory and industry standards.

We have given extensive coverage to all parties and candidates on our newscasts and other programs during the recent Ontario Election campaign (as we do during coverage of all elections).  We firmly believe that, despite the airing of the program, when taken in the context of all of our election coverage, we have given all parties the opportunity to expose their ideas to the public on an “equitable” basis as required by the CRTC in Public Notice CRTC 1988-142 – A Policy with Respect to Election Campaign Broadcasting.

As responsible broadcasters, we are sensitive to your concerns.  Our purpose and intention is to entertain and inform, not to offend our viewers.  We value and respect the fact that you have an interest in our programming and that you were concerned enough to let us know your opinions.

The complainant was dissatisfied with that response and submitted his Ruling Request on October 24 with the following note:

An apology is quite appropriate but it should be made to the people of Ontario.

If the network was not diligent in monitoring its programming, then they should be reprimanded in some more severe manner than simply apologizing to me.  The host of the program probably was aware that what he was doing was against the rules but did it anyway and should for that reason be severely reprimanded and forced to apologize on his program.

THE DECISION

The CBSC National Conventional Television Panel examined the complaint under the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (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.

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 broadcasters 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 the degree of public interest in the questions presented.  Recognizing that healthy controversy is essential to the maintenance of democratic institutions, broadcasters will endeavour to encourage the presentation of news and opinion on any controversy which contains an element of the public interest.

The Panel Adjudicators read all of the correspondence and viewed a tape of the challenged episode.  The Panel concludes that Global violated both clauses.

On-Air Rules outside Electoral Periods

The CBSC has not rendered any decisions that deal squarely with the issue of potentially inequitable airtime afforded to a politician or political party in the midst of an electoral campaign.  That said, the CBSC has issued two decisions dealing with the entitlement of municipal politicians to have positions on regular radio programs outside of election periods; these decisions lay down principles useful to the resolution of the matter at hand.

In one of these, CHML-AM re the Bob Bratina Morning Show (CBSC Decision 06/07-0908, April 14, 2008), the Ontario Regional Panel dealt with a complaint about the fact that Bob Bratina was simultaneously a radio host and a city councillor in Hamilton.  He had previously worked in radio for decades until he won a seat on city council in the municipal elections of 2004 and 2006.  Although the host recused himself from his on-air duties during the election campaigns, he retained his morning show before and after those elections.

While the CRTC did not define any principles applicable to the set of facts the CBSC was called upon to deal with in the Bratina matter, the Commission’s information sheet on “Election Campaigns and Political Advertising” provided two useful underlying principles.  The first was knowledge-based, namely, that, “during an election campaign, the public has a right to know about all the issues involved so that it has sufficient knowledge to make an informed choice from among the various political parties and candidates.”  The second was that, during a campaign, broadcasters “must provide equitable treatment of issues, candidates and parties.”  “Equitable” was then defined by the CRTC as meaning “that all candidates and parties are entitled to some coverage that will give them the opportunity to expose their ideas to the public.  Although treatment must be fair and just, ‘equitable’ does not necessarily mean ‘equal’.”  In the Bratina decision, the Panel concluded that there was no inherent conflict of interest when politicians serve as radio hosts.

In that decision, the Panel did lay down some principles that are pertinent to the current file.

In other words, the issue appears to relate to the unfair advantage that may accrue to an on-air individual in the midst of an election contest.  Provided one is outside that period, no necessary incompatibility is seen to ensue.

[…]

The bottom line for the Ontario Regional Panel is that, in Canada, provided one is outside the period of an electoral contest, there is no necessary incompatibility between an individual’s holding political office and having a regular on-air role.

[…]

There is nothing overtly political in the commentary, as in a “Vote for me” exhortation.  […]  To the extent that the host practises his on-air profession away from election campaign periods, however, there is no inherent difficulty or conflict of interest resulting from his municipal position.

CIGL-FM re a segment on the morning show (Jack Miller) (CBSC Decision 07/08-0473, April 14, 2008) raised some similar issues and the Ontario Panel’s decision followed the principles it had laid down in the Bratina decision.

On-air Rules Within Electoral Periods

As the foregoing CBSC decisions anticipate, the rules change during electoral contests.  Moreover, the CRTC information sheet states, “during a campaign, [broadcasters] must provide equitable treatment of issues, candidates and parties.”  The “treatment [of the political rivals] must be fair and just,” although it is clear that “‘equitable’ does not necessarily mean ‘equal’.”  In other words, while broadcasters need not be timing the appearances of each side with a stopwatch, the assessment of the substantive allocation of time must not be evidently inequitable.  The operative words are “fair and just”.  Where, therefore, it is clear on the face of a program that a broadcaster has conferred a substantive advantage on one party that exceeds those bounds, that would constitute a breach of the fairness provisions of Clauses 6 and 7 of the CAB Code of Ethics.

There are, of course, news and public affairs programs that deal in political fare as their raison d’être, and they must be equitable in their attention to parties and candidates.  There are also non-political programs, those without an ostensible political connection.  They may be linked to apolitical subjects, such as cooking, home repair, outdoor life or a plethora of other interests, such as, in the present matter, fishing.  Even in such fundamentally non-political instances, care should be taken not to advantage one political party or candidate over other equivalent contenders.  Canadian electoral campaigns tend to be of short duration and, where such an appearance has been previously arranged and is unavoidable, extra attention must be paid to avoid the politicization of the episode or segment.

In the matter at hand, the broadcaster stepped over the line on numerous occasions.  That Darryl Cronzy, the host, identified his guest, John Tory, as head of the Conservative Party of Ontario was entirely reasonable, but Cronzy did not wait even sixty seconds into the episode before declaring his own electoral preference.

Stick with us ’cause I’m going fishing with the boss of the Conservative Party and hopefully, in a couple of months, the head honcho of Ontario.

He went on to ask the Conservative leader whether he had “a new policy on fish and wildlife”.  A discussion of that policy, including a Conservative-proposed matching funds program of thirty million dollars, ensued.  Following some fishing and related chat, the host asked John Tory his Party’s policy on the bear hunt.  Interspersed with the rest of the sporting component of the program was discussion of Conservative policies regarding natural resources and the environment, the operation of Ringwood, the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, fish hatcheries, the size of the Ministry of Natural Resources bureaucracy, and so on.  In fact, the last segment of the Going Fishing episode was almost entirely devoted to political subjects.  The crowning touch, though, was the following unabashed endorsement by the program host, which included a deliberate statement (whether accurate or not) of the planned rerunning of the episode both before and after the election.

Cronzy: [laughs] Listen, I’m not telling you who to vote for.  [points at Tory; Tory laughs]  Right?  If you guys are – and you ladies – are concerned sportsmen, whether you’re a fisherman, a hunter, a camper, I’m being honest.  The natural resources went down the tube the last four to seven, even eight years.  You know, uh, there’s mistakes that were made with Conservatives in the past, with the Liberals, with the NDP – whew – but anyways, you’re correcting those mistakes.

Tory:     I’m gonna try.

Cronzy: We’re doin’ this show, we’re gonna run it twice before the election, right?  And then twice after the election.  [Tory laughs]  So I hope, and I’m almost positive, you’re gonna be the next premier.

Tory:     We’re gonna work on it.  With your help.

The broadcaster ought to have been entirely aware of the content of the episode.  There was not a modicum of subtlety in host Cronzy’s approach, which the broadcaster made its own by running the episode of the program in the midst of an electoral contest.  The policy exposure opportunities afforded to the leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party and the overtly partisan perspective of the program host combined to provide an inequitable advantage to that party.  Nor was there any indication in the correspondence that a comparable opportunity was offered to the Conservative Party’s political rivals.  Consequently, in the view of the National Conventional Television Panel, the broadcast of the September 29 episode halfway through the Ontario election campaign breached the fairness requirements of both Clauses 6 and 7 of the CAB Code of Ethics.

It is interesting to note, on a comparative basis, the provision applied by Great Britain in Section 6.7 of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code.

Appearances by candidates (in UK elections) or representatives (of permitted participants in UK referendums) in non-political programmes that were planned or scheduled before the election or referendum period may continue, but no new appearances should be arranged and broadcast during the period.

While the issue of interest for the Panel is not the scheduling aspect of the section, the provision does provide an indication of the importance to the British regulator of caution in the provision of even non-political broadcast time to contenders in an electoral environment.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In all CBSC decisions, the Panels assess the broadcasters’ responsiveness to complainants.  Although they do not have to agree with the complainant, it is expected that broadcasters will respond in a thoughtful and thorough manner.  In this particular instance, Global’s Coordinator of Compliance Standards did acknowledge that the broadcaster had not screened the challenged episode prior to broadcast, but she did indicate that Global had not intended to favour one political party over another.  While that response did not satisfy the complainant, who felt that a more public admission of fault was necessary, Global’s response clearly met its responsiveness obligations as a CBSC member.  Nothing further is required in this respect on this occasion.

Announcement Of The Decision

Global is required to: 1) announce the decision, in the following terms, once during prime time 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 Going Fishing was broadcast; 2) within the fourteen days following the broadcasts of the announcements, to provide written confirmation of the airing of the statement to the complainant who filed the Ruling Request; and 3) at that time, to provide the CBSC with a copy of that written confirmation and with air check copies of the broadcasts of the two announcements which must be made by Global.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found that Global violated the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Code of Ethics in its broadcast of an episode of Going Fishing on September 29, 2007.  On the non-political fishing program, the host took a partisan political position and provided the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario the opportunity to appear on the program and discuss his Party’s fishing and wildlife policies.  By airing this episode in the midst of an election campaign period, Global violated Clauses 6 and 7 of the Code which require fairness and balance in the presentation of public affairs.

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