No Code Breach as CBSC Panel Splits on Controversial Bruce Allen Reality Check

No Code Breach as CBSC Panel Splits on Controversial Bruce Allen Reality Check

Ottawa, July 16, 2008 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning Bruce Allen’s 90-second editorial, Reality Check, last September.  The topic was immigrants and the accommodation of their traditions.  The following week, Allen appeared on the Christy Clark Show to discuss his commentary, which had generated considerable public controversy.

The CBSC’s British Columbia Regional Panel concluded that the Reality Check did not violate the Human Rights Clause of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics, but the six-person Panel was evenly divided on whether the editorial violated another Code clause relating to the proper presentation of opinion, comment and editorial.  The Panel also observed that the Christy Clark Show provided a balanced discussion on the issues.

In his Reality Check, Allen mentioned a number of cultural problems ethnic or religious minorities had encountered, including: Sikh children denied passports because they were wearing “handkerchiefs” in their photos, an immigration plan to change common Sikh surnames Singh and Kaur, burka-wearing women encountering resistance when trying to vote, turban-wearers refusing to wear helmets when motorcycle-riding, etc.  Allen concluded his piece with “if you are immigrating to this country and you don’t like the rules that are in place, then you have the right to choose not to live here” and “If you don’t like the rules, hit it. We don’t need you here.  You have another place to go; it’s called home.”  Two weeks later, Allen did an extended Reality Check, in which he said he was actually opposed to the instances of “race-bashing” he had described, and he apologized for offending people.

The B.C. Regional Panel examined the public’s complaints under Clause 2 of the CAB Code of Ethics, which prohibits “abusive or unduly discriminatory material or comment which is based on matters of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion,” etc.  The Panel unanimously concluded that the Reality Check did not violate that Clause because

While most of the examples appear to be Sikh community focussed, they are not all of that nature.  In any event, the Panel finds none of the examples cited problematic in their mere mention, under the Human Rights Clause.  They are all issues of current, or recent, public discussion, and, even if controversial, absolutely fair to raise and discuss.  […]  The Panel concludes, therefore, that the identification of the issues noted in this paragraph is neither unduly discriminatory nor tied specifically to an identifiable group.

The Panel also examined the complaints under Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics, which requires the full, fair and proper presentation of opinion, editorial and comment.  On this point, the six members of the B.C. Panel were evenly divided.  Those who concluded that that comment did not violate the Code provision came to that result on the grounds that Bruce Allen

was only expressing a political perspective, which he was free to espouse and to broadcast.  Political speech is the most important kind of speech to protect, and its occasional unpleasantness does not change its nature.  If anything, in this instance, as Allen himself argued, the provocative nature of what he said did result in a heightened awareness of the issue and considerable further discussion in the public place, a great democratic plus.  The bottom line for these Adjudicators is that the ineptitude and bullying tone of the editorial have not rendered it sufficiently improper or unfair […].

The other Adjudicators argued that Allen’s identification of Sikh religious headgear as “handkerchiefs” and the Sikh surname as “Khan” rather than “Kaur” were “mocking or condescending”.  They added:

In other words, he has felt free to lash out at the practices of those he characterizes as immigrants, and to do so without taking the time or showing the respect to get his research right in the first place.  […]  Because he and members of his family may not wear turbans or burkas does not entitle him to deride those religious or traditional practices of other Canadians, whether of the first or older generational presence in this country.   While there is room for a legitimate debate on the current Canadian rules relating to [the various accommodation issues he listed], it is not on the “us and them” basis he has chosen.  It is these incorrect and divisive statements that the Panel finds improper […].

One complainant also objected to Allen’s appearance on the Christy Clark Show.  The Panel found that that program was an entirely balanced discussion of the controversy and surrounding issues:

The point for the Panel is that Christy Clark provided strong balance on the challenged editorial, within a single program.  The editorialist was given his opportunity to explain, and was then called upon to face critics and to taste some support as well.  And program host Clark weighed in without hesitation.  That is balance.  That is interactive radio fulfilling an important societal function.  That is Clause 7 of the CAB Code of Ethics dealing with a controversial public issue exactly as envisioned by the drafters.  The Panel applauds Ms. Clark and the broadcaster for that extra effort.

The Panel concluded its decision by commenting on CKNW’s and its parent company Corus’s “extraordinary steps to respond quickly and thoughtfully to the concerns of the public.”  It noted that CKNW responded to all of the many complainants in a “thoughtful, sensitive” manner and had “opened their airwaves to comments and criticisms about the Bruce Allen editorial.”

Canada’s private broadcasters have themselves created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, equitable portrayal, television violence and journalistic independence 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 ethics created by the RTNDA – Association of Electronic Journalists in 1970.  More than 685 radio stations, satellite radio services, 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