No Inherent Conflict of Interest when Politicians Serve as Radio Hosts, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, June 25, 2008 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released two decisions concerning municipal politicians who were appearing regularly in a hosting role on morning radio programs.  The first involved the Bob Bratina Morning Show broadcast on CHML-AM (AM900, Hamilton) and the second involved Jack Miller’s participation on the CIGL-FM (Mix 97, Belleville) morning show.  In both cases, the CBSC Ontario Regional Panel decided that there is nothing inherently problematic with a municipal politician having a radio program.

Both Bob Bratina and Jack Miller had worked as on-air radio personalities for many years.  Both had been elected to City Council in their respective cities within the preceding four years.  The two complainants felt that politicians who maintained their positions as on-air hosts while holding municipal office put them in a conflict of interest whereby they could use their positions in the media to promote their own political points of view.

The Ontario Panel referred to the CRTC’s rules on election campaigns and noted that the only official rule in effect is that radio personalities who are candidates in an election cannot appear on-air during the campaign period.  To the Panel, the point was that

no fundamental conflict exists between being a candidate and being on the airwaves, even when the announcement of one’s candidacy occurs, say, two months before an election is called.  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.  This does not mean that the Panel considers that absolutely anything could be said at any time by a candidate or an office-holder.  It only means that the Panel does not consider that there is anything inherently incompatible between the holding or seeking of office by an individual, on the one hand, and being on air, on the other. […] The Ontario Panel appreciates that some Canadian broadcasters will prefer not to confer such an access advantage on an individual at any time, even when there is no political campaign in contemplation.  That, needless to say, is their choice.

In both cases, the Panel concluded that the hosts had responded to issues that had already come before City Council.  There was no question in either case of advocacy regarding matters “about to come before City Council.”  The Panel added that

the access, even the advantage, that the politician-host undeniably has is not inherently undue (during a non-campaign period).  Moreover, where the political status of the speaker is known to the audience, the listeners are not in any way deceived.  Indeed, it is arguable that audiences having the opportunity to benefit from the knowledge and experience of an individual in office secure an information advantage.

In the CIGL-FM decision, in which the co-host was customarily announcing sports news, the complainant asserted that Miller, as a sportscaster, should not be reporting on a matter, municipal affairs, that was not his primary on-air responsibility.  The Panel disagreed, adding that

he, like any other broadcaster, has no inherent limitation on the subjects that he can discuss. […] Moreover, Miller had a clear expertise on municipal matters.  He was as entitled to speak of that subject as he would have been to deal with stamp collecting, had that been an expertise of his.

In the end, the Panel found no violation of either Article 6 of the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada’s Code of Ethics relating to conflicts of interest, or of Clause 6 of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Code of Ethics relating to fair and proper presentation of opinion.

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 630 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