History Channel re the movie Midnight Express

(CBSC Decision 98/99-0203 and 0244)
A. MacKay (Chair), R. Stanbury (Vice-Chair), R. Cohen (ad hoc),P. Fockler and M. Hogarth


On December 26, 1998, the specialty service History Alliance
Communications (the History Channel) aired the Award-winning 1978 Alan Parker feature film
Midnight Express. It preceded the broadcast of the film with a statement by
highly-respected program host and moderator Ann Medina and followed it with a panel
discussion about the controversial film.

Midnight Express is based on the true life story of a young
American named Billy Hayes. It opens with Hayes and his girlfriend on the verge of leaving
Istanbul for the United States after a vacation in Turkey. Although the girlfriend is not
at all aware of the fact that Hayes is planning to smuggle drugs back to North America,
the viewer sees Hayes in the washroom taping blocks of hashish to his body before boarding
the aircraft. When Hayes is caught red-handed before boarding, he is detained and his
girlfriend is permitted to leave Turkey. The viewer is never made aware of how the police
learned of Hayes’s smuggling attempt; one is simply left with the impression that the
Turkish police were extremely vigilant regarding drug smugglers.

Following his airport apprehension, Hayes is incarcerated in what is
portrayed as a brutal Turkish prison. Hayes befriends in particular a semi-deranged
American, a dope-smoking Briton and a gay Scandinavian, all of whom are portrayed somewhat
sympathetically (despite the fact that they are acknowledged to be criminals). Hayes also
has a good deal of contact with the sadistic head of the guards, and with a Turkish
prisoner who “makes a living” selling goods to the other prisoners and acting as
a stoolpigeon for the prison guards.

Hayes’s father hires an ineffective, apparently incompetent, local
attorney to attempt, on appeal, to get a reduced sentence for his son, who has, by the
time of the appeal, spent 3-1/2 years in the Turkish prison. Billy and his father are
advised by the lawyer “not to worry” but, in a dramatic courtroom scene which is
one of the central moments of the film, Hayes is sentenced to a lengthy additional
term in prison by the panel of Turkish judges. Hayes loses control and berates the judges
and the prosecutor in the following bitter terms:

[Addressing the judges] I thinkI’ve paid for my error, and if it’s your decision today to sentence me to moreyears than I … [unfinished sentence] My lawyer – my lawyer! That’s a good one -says “Be cool, Billy. Don’t get angry, don’t get upset, be good andI’ll get you a pardon, an amnesty and appeal, a this, a that, the other thing. Well,this has been going on for three and a half years and I’ve been playing it cool.I’ve been good and now I’m damned tired of being good because you people gave methe belief that I had 53 days left, you hung 53 days in front of my face and then you justtook it away.

[Addressing the prosecutor] And you, I just wish you could be standingwhere I’m standing right now and feel what that feels like because then you wouldknow something that you don’t know, Mr. Prosecutor. Mercy. You would know that theconcept of a society is based on the quality of that mercy. It’s a sense of fairplay; it’s a sense of justice. But I guess that’s like asking a bear to shit ina toilet. For a nation of pigs it sure is funny you don’t eat ’em. Jesus Christforgave the bastards but I can’t. I hate … [unfinished sentence] I hate you, I hateyour nation, I hate your people. And I fuck your sons and daughters because they are pigs.You’re a pig. You’re all pigs.

Once back in prison, he determines to take the “midnight
express” out, which is to say, he plans to escape. He and his fellow American inmate
attempt to tunnel out but they are caught and are badly beaten and thrown back in jail,
Hayes being shipped to the insane ward. Thereafter, when the prison stool pigeon is about
to be released, the previously betrayed prisoners decide to repay him by beating him and,
in a brutal nemesis, Hayes bites his tongue out. When the guard, asserting his control, is
about to take Hayes to the torture chamber for what might be a fatal beating as
punishment, Hayes fights back and drives the larger man against the wall, impaling him on
a clothes spike, killing him instantly. Hayes then purloins a prison guard uniform and
walks out of the prison to permanent freedom.

The Letters of Complaint

On January 6, 1999, a viewer wrote to the Secretary General of the CRTC
stating that:

I feel that the public broadcasting ofthis movie entitled Midnight Express offends the sensibilities of many Canadians ingeneral and Canadians of Turkish background in particular. It is a piece of work createdto promote hate and racism against a race and nation of people.

It is an utterly racist movie in that it specifically targets Turkishpeople not necessarily those individuals who supposedly inflicted torture and unusualpunishment for the crime. I am certainly not aware of any studies or empirical evidenceobjectively verifiable that could reasonably show that there is more torture in Turkishdetention centers than jails of other nations. However, it is widely believed at least inNorth America, that jails in Turkey are far worse than the jails of other nations. Thisfilm feeds this racist stereotype that is not based on facts but is created by fictionslike Midnight Express and other anti–Turkish propaganda. Even if there wereinstances of illegal behavior or torture by some prison guards and injustices taking placewithin the Turkish judicial system, how could this justify insulting a whole nation ofsome 70 million people in the crudest of terms and calling them “a nation ofpigs”? Even if there are instances of torture/corruption within the legal/penalsystem of Turkey, most people in the nation would strongly condemn such behavior.

This film should be banned from public broadcasting because it promotesblind hatred against mostly peaceful and friendly people of Turkey. It depicts Turkishpeople and not just prison officials as being sadistic monsters. Comments made by the maincharacter were almost always directed to and about the “Turks” and the societyand not specifically to prison officials. The absence of distinction between the prisonofficials and the Turkish society in general is very unfortunate. It is this lack ofdistinction in the film that makes it a general attack on all Turkish people. It is alsothis aspect of the movie which makes it a hate literature, that is, it targets a specificgroup of people, namely “Turks” based on behavior actual or imagined by only ahandful of people, certainly not a representative sample of the nation of Turkey.

My understanding is that Canada has laws designed to prevent thedissemination and propagation of hate literature, why would they make an exception forthis particular film? Many North Americans particularly impressionable youngsters who havenever met a Turkish person or have never had an opportunity to visit Turkey, only come toknow and understand Turkish people and Turkey through works of fiction such as MidnightExpress. Is this film a fair and justifiable representation of people who are mostlypeaceful, friendly, democratic and respectful of other nations?

It is also alleged by the History Channel host in her introduction ofthe movie that somehow the film is instructional in that it may prevent people fromsmuggling drugs. I think most people smuggling drugs fully understand that it is a crime;one does not have to engage in victimization of innocent people/propagation of racistliterature to make this point.

As a Concerned Canadian/Turkish citizen I would like to request thatCRTC take action to prevent any future broadcast of this or other films like MidnightExpress as it is not a Canadian tradition to promote hate or racism.

On January 21, the First Councillor of the Turkish Embassy sent a
letter of complaint on behalf of the Turkish community to the President and CEO of the
History Channel. This letter was forwarded to the CBSC and reads as follows:

We have been contacted by numerousmembers of the Turkish community in Canada regarding the December 26, 1998 broadcast ofthe movie Midnight Express on the History Channel.

Those Turkish Canadian citizens, who have telephoned our office andhave written to us, express great distress that this film promotes hate and racism againstTurkish people. They request the movie not be aired any more.

We sympathize with these people, and support their request that youtake action to prevent any future broadcast of the Midnight Express which many ofthem find offensive.

Our deep concern is that this film not merely hurts the feelings ofCanadian Turks, but also impedes the advancement of the harmonious social and culturalmosaic of Canada.

Thank you very much for your attention to this delicate matter. We lookforward to hearing back from you.

The Broadcaster’s Response

History Channel replied to the complaints in the following terms, in

We acknowledge that we have aresponsibility to provide our viewers with and intelligent context for the issues,historical information and points of viewer contained in the film. Ann Medina, a respectedjournalist and commentator, introduces each film, giving it historical perspective andmeaning.

Midnight Express (U.S., 1978), directed by Alan Parker(Evita, Mississippi Burning) is based on Billy Hayes’ real life account of beingarrested and imprisoned in Turkey for smuggling 200 kilograms of hashish in 1970. Thescreenplay was adapted by Oliver Stone (JFK, Nixon, Reversal of Fortune), based onHayes’ own book, Midnight Express.

The film was not intended to be a slur on the Turkish community orpeople. The brutality and harshness Hayes encountered in the Turkish prison was portrayedno differently than American prisons are depicted in such programs as Oz, and filmssuch as Night Zoo and the Shawshank Redemption. Director Alan Parker said inan interview with the London Observer, “I was shocked when people said it wasanti-Turk,” he says. “We hadn't meant it to be racist. We thought we were makinga film about injustice.” (30 May 1982)

Midnight Express was also critically acclaimed, winning twoAcademy Awards, for Best Writing (Oliver Stone) and Best Music (Giorgio Moroder), and wasnominated for Best Director, Best Picture, Best Film Editing, and Best Supporting Actor.It also garnered six Golden Globe Awards, for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best MotionPicture Acting Debut – Female, Best Motion Picture Acting Debut – Male, Best Actor in aSupporting Role, Best Original Score and Best Screenplay.

I would like to take this opportunity to explain History Television'sprogramming policy.

Each film that is aired on History Television is considered verycarefully. Before we decide to broadcast a film, our Programming Department screens it toensure that it is suitable for broadcast. The determination of suitability includesensuring that the broadcast would not contravene the Canadian Association of Broadcasters'Sex-Role Portrayal Code for Television and Radio Programming, the Broadcast Codefor Advertising to Children or the Voluntary Code Regarding Violence in TelevisionProgramming. Controversial programs are also screened by members of our seniormanagement group in order to double-check compliance with the Codes.

Thank you for taking the time to voice your concerns. We do appreciatefeedback and hope that this letter has addressed your concerns. Given the wide variety ofCanadian and international programming available on History Television, we hope that youwill find programs within our schedule that suit your viewing tastes.

History Television strives to provide programming that is of interestto a wide range of viewers. We regret that you were offended by our presentation of MidnightExpress on History Television. We appreciate your feedback and would like to respondto your concerns.

The complainants were unsatisfied with the broadcaster’s response
and requested, on January 15 and February 5, respectively, that the CBSC refer the matter
to the appropriate Regional Council for adjudication. The First Councillor added a brief
note which further explained his position.

With reference to your letter datedJanuary 27, 1999, regarding the program Midnight Express which was aired by HistoryTelevision on December 26, 1998 and in response to their reply, enclosed please find thesigned “Ruling Request” form for further consideration.

We are certainly not satisfied with the reply from History Televisionwhich merely states that the film is based on a real life account, that it won a number ofawards and that it is not intended to be a slur on the Turkish Community.

We think that Midnight Express is a film of a racist nature andoffensive to the people of Turkish origin for the following reasons:

– In a number of scenes, the hero uses such insulting sentences as:”you don't eat pork because you are a nation of pigs”.

– All Turkish characters, without any exception, are depicted asrepulsive, sexually perverse and morally corrupt.

Attached is a copy of a flier that was distributed in 1983 by theTurkish Canadians in Montreal, on the occasion of a conference given by the main characterof the film, which reflects the indignation the Turkish Community felt at that time. Anewspaper clipping about a discrimination suit filed by the Turkish Americans in 1984, isalso on the flier.

I believe that almost everyone that sees the film in question, wouldagree that the Turkish reaction is fully justified.


The CBSC’s Ontario Regional Council considered the complaint under
the Code of Ethics of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB). The relevant clause
of that Code reads as follows:

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 2 (Human Rights)

Recognizing that every person has aright to full and equal recognition and to enjoy certain fundamental rights and freedoms,broadcasters shall endeavour to ensure, to the best of their ability, that theirprogramming contains no abusive or discriminatory material or comment which is based onmatters of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, marital status orphysical or mental handicap.

The Regional Council members viewed a tape of Midnight Express
and reviewed all of the correspondence. The Council considers that the film in question
does not violate the Code mentioned above.

The Content of the Program

It is abundantly clear to the Ontario Regional Council members that the
film has a point of view. The story of Billy Hayes and his other drug-smuggling prison
friends makes them appear much more sympathetic than the prison guards, who are painted as
brutal, grotesque and sadistic characters, and even the judges, who are either insensitive
to “poor” Billy Hayes or perhaps administering very tough national laws. In any
event, the contrast drawn between the two sides is patent and any reasonable viewer of the
film would conclude that the Turkish law-enforcement establishment depicted does not come
off well.

It is not up to the Council to determine whether this historical or
political perspective is fair or accurate. The point at issue is whether, as alleged by
the first complainant, the History Channel has broadcast “an utterly racist
movie” which constitutes “a general attack on all Turkish people”, thereby
amounting to abusively discriminatory comment in breach of the human rights provision of
the CAB Code of Ethics. Although the Turkish First Councillor’s (the second
complainant) first letter was generally more understated, observing that the film
“offends the sensibilities of many Canadians in general and Canadians of Turkish
background in particular” and “impedes the advancement of the harmonious social
and cultural mosaic of Canada”, it also requests that the CRTC “take action to
prevent any future broadcast of Midnight Express.” In the First
Councillor’s second letter, he does describe the film as being “of a racist
nature and offensive to the people of Turkish origin” for specific reasons which he

The Council should state here, as it has in previous decisions, that,
in its view, all Canadians are diminished by abusively discriminatory comments
broadcast about any identifiable group. It is hardly necessary to
add that this would as much be the case about persons of Turkish nationality as any other
background. As the Ontario and Quebec Regional Councils put this point in CHOM-FM and
CILQ-FM re the Howard Stern Show
(CBSC Decisions 97/98-0001+ and 0015+, October 17 and
18, 1997):

Some have suggested that the fact that asignificant proportion, perhaps 65%, of the CHOM-FM audience is French-speaking had abearing on the appreciation of the comments made by Howard Stern. The suggestion has beenmade that the abusive comments may have been made worse by reason of the make-up of thestation’s audience. The Regional Councils disagree. Every Canadian, regardless ofnationality, is diminished by abusively discriminatory remarks which are aimed at anyidentifiable group. [Emphasis added.]

Even though this is a settled issue, it often remains difficult to make
the evaluation of statements to determine whether they cross the line into abusively
discriminatory territory.

In some respects, the Council finds this case less difficult than
others it has been called upon to deal with. From the Council’s perspective, the
undeniably negative comments made about the Turkish people by Billy Hayes must be
narrowly viewed, even if they are framed by him in general terms. The fact of the matteris that the only Turks in the film about whom Hayes has any justification to evaluate are
those with whom he has had the worst experiences, namely, the representatives of the legal
and penal system. They are painted brutally by director Alan Parker but they are the only
segment of the Turkish population the viewer has contact with. There is no assessment made
by the screenwriter, the director or the film’s characters about the Turks or Turkey
in general. It is a story of penal injustice. When Billy Hayes screams in the courtroom
“I hate you, I hate your nation, I hate your people”, he does so in anger and
bitterness for the lengthy sentence handed to him when he had hoped to be free in 53 more
days. That he lashes out against the country and the people does not mean that the film or
the broadcaster has gone to such extremes of generality, for they have not. The context is
the prison, not the country. The comments are directed at the keepers, not the people. The
film is a drama, not a documentary. Moreover, just to avoid any possible
misinterpretation, the broadcaster has cautiously and thoughtfully book-ended Midnight
with a responsible introduction and exit. In the view of the Council, the
discriminatory comment does not target the Turkish people or the nation. The bitter
discriminatory perspective is limited to injustices perpetrated by the jailers, the
lawyers and the judges and this perspective of the system is a legitimate political point
of view, one protected by freedom of expression and artistic license and, therefore, is
not in breach of any Code.

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. In this case, the Council considers that the broadcaster’s letters
responded to the issues raised by the complainants, although not as effectively as might
have been the case on the delicate issue of racism. It did provide other fair perspective
on the film, even if it did not resolve the concerns of the two Turkish complainants.
Nothing more is required of the broadcaster. Consequently, the History Channel has not
breached the Council’s standard of responsiveness.

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.