Mention of Religious Affiliation of One Political Party Leader but not Others Not in Breach of Human Rights Clause but Improper in Terms of Balance, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, March 15, 2005 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning Global National’s “Decision Canada 2004”, the coverage of the calling of the 38th General Election. The news special included Prime Minister Paul Martin walking to Rideau Hall, commentary from correspondents across the country, profiles of the major national party leaders, the leaders’ press conferences following the announcement and other election-related material. Throughout the first hour of the broadcast, a text crawl at the foot of the screen featured captions that provided brief facts about the election and the Canadian political system. Examples included “This is Canada’s 38th general election campaign”, “Key elex issue: Health care”, “NDP founded in Ottawa, 1961”, “Paul Martin is Canada’s 21st Prime Minister” and so on. Some of the other captions provided information about the political party leaders. For example, the caption about Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin ran five times and read as follows: “Martin: 65, married, three sons”; that about New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton ran once and read: “Layton: 53, no seat in HOC”; and that about Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper ran three times and read as follows: “Harper: 44, Evangelical Christian”.

There was no particular focus on religion, marital status or other similar personal information in any of the other commentaries or clips featured in the coverage. A viewer characterized the insertion of the crawl about Stephen Harper as “religious bigotry”. The National Conventional Television Panel disagreed. It said:

To argue that the characterization of an individual as an “Evangelical Christian” is bigotry is to argue that such an appellation is negative. To many, being described as an Evangelical Christian would be a proud and positive designation. […] Simply put, while there can be no doubt that the isolation of Mr. Harper’s religious background is discriminatory, in the sense that it differentiates him from the other party leaders by attributing a religion to him, the Panel does not find the use of the term at all abusive or unduly discriminatory in the newscast in question. As far as racial bigotry is concerned, the term is wholly inapplicable to the election coverage at issue here. The use of Evangelical Christian in the circumstances of this newscast does not breach Clause 2 of the CAB Code of Ethics.

On the other hand, the Panel did consider that the inclusion of such information for only one of the party leaders was improper. It explained:

None of the issues raised in the electoral coverage of the broadcast in question touched on matters for which religious affiliation would have been a relevant consideration. Had positions on abortion or same-sex marriage, to pick two examples, been under discussion, religious predilection might have been pertinent. They were not. Consequently, it was not. [… T]he Panel makes no decision based on the presence or absence of underlying supportive material. It merely concludes that the provision of the religious affiliation of Stephen Harper, even if reflective of his own biographical materials and even if accurate, was improper in the absence of corresponding information for the other party leaders and, as such, in breach of the provisions of Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics.

Canada’s private broadcasters have themselves created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, gender portrayal and television violence by which they expect the members of their profession will abide.  In 1990, they also created the CBSC, which is the self-regulatory body with the responsibility of administering those professional broadcast Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic practices first created by the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada (RTNDA) in 1970.  More than 550 radio and television stations and specialty services from across Canada are members of the Council.

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All CBSC decisions, Codes, links to members' and other web sites, and related information are available on the CBSC's website at www.cbsc.ca. For more information, please contact the CBSC National Chair, Mme Andrée Noël CBSC Executive Director, John MacNab