Between August 6 and 10, 2011, there was widespread looting and rioting in several cities and towns in England. The rioting began in Tottenham following a protest against the shooting death by police of a 29-year-old black man. On August 9, Brian Lilley, the host of the public affairs program, ByLine, broadcast on the Sun News Network, discussed the situation with his guest Michael Coren, who is another Sun News commentator.
The program began at 7:00 pm Eastern Time. In the introduction, Lilley stated “London falling. Michael Coren is here to give you the real reasons behind the riots in England.” The segment with Coren began approximately 40 minutes into the program. The segment consisted primarily of Lilley asking Coren for his views on the matter. Coren is originally from the United Kingdom and has some familiarity with the areas where the rioting took place (a full transcript of the segment can be found in Appendix A).
Coren began by complaining that the authorities were not being tough enough and described an interview he had seen on television with some “moronic kids” who claimed the situation was the fault of the government and “rich people”. Coren commented that “they’re using very expensive, uh, electronic equipment to communicate their poverty.” That inspired Lilley to ask Coren about reports that the rioters were using BlackBerry smartphones to communicate and organize themselves. Coren’s response was “Well, it’s not about poverty. It’s not about BlackBerrys. It’s about black thugs.” Coren went on to say that the rioting began in communities composed of primarily black people: “There are gangs of, of black young men – this is not about race, it’s about culture – who have taken over the area. […] Most of the victims of their crimes – sadistic torture, drugs, murder – are other black people.” Coren argued that liberal politicians and media are too frightened to declare “black and brown gang culture” as the real origin of the problem. With respect to white riot participants, he said “Then we have, uh, less, frankly, courageous, uh, more law-abiding, slightly, white youth trying to replicate this. So they come out when the fighting’s pretty much done and they start looting and screaming and shouting. And they try and use, uh, black slang and pretend they’re part of black culture.” Coren then referred to the specific case that allegedly prompted the riots. He pointed out that the police unit accused of shooting the young black man in Tottenham deals exclusively with black-on-black gun crime and argued that the man was a gangster so he did not feel sorry that the man had died. Coren stated his view that the gangsters are “bad people who will shoot you dead if you don’t respect them enough” and blamed factors such as absent fathers, teenage pregnancy, men fathering children with multiple different women, reality television and badly-behaved celebrity role models on the instability of society.
Throughout the dialogue, Sun News broadcast video-clips and photographs of the rioting. There were images of police in riot gear, vehicles and buildings on fire, and rioters on the streets. In a few of the images, the people featured were young black men, but in most, the people’s faces were obscured so their skin colour was not visible.
Sun News Network rebroadcast the entire episode of ByLine on August 13 at 7:00 pm Eastern Time.
The CBSC received 10 complaints about the broadcasts, but only four complainants provided enough information for the CBSC to accept their complaints. Of those four, two individuals filed Ruling Requests, one who had seen the August 9 broadcast and one who had seen the August 13 broadcast. Both complainants characterized Coren’s comments as racist and unacceptable for broadcast. Sun News Network responded to both complainants on October 12. The station wrote that it “vigorously rejects that characterization of Mr. Coren’s comments” and that the comments “were not calculated to expose black people to hatred and contempt.” It argued that the “comments constituted a serious attempt to understand the causes of the riots” and that “Sun News has a responsibility to address controversial topics.” Both complainants disagreed with Sun News’ position on the issue and asked the CBSC to investigate further (the full text of all correspondence relating to the two complaints can be found in Appendix B).
The CBSC National Specialty Services Panel examined the complaints under the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics and Equitable Portrayal Code:
CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 2 – Human Rights
Recognizing that every person has the right to full and equal recognition and to enjoy certain fundamental rights and freedoms, broadcasters shall ensure that their programming contains no abusive or unduly discriminatory material or comment which is based on matters of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.
CAB Equitable Portrayal Code, Clause 2 – Human Rights
Recognizing that every person has the right to the full enjoyment of certain fundamental rights and freedoms, broadcasters shall ensure that their programming contains no abusive or unduly discriminatory material or comment which is based on matters of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.
CAB Equitable Portrayal Code, Clause 3 – Negative Portrayal
In an effort to ensure appropriate depictions of all individuals and groups, broadcasters shall refrain from airing unduly negative portrayals of persons with respect to race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability. Negative portrayal can take many different forms, including (but not limited to) stereotyping, stigmatization and victimization, derision of myths, traditions or practices, degrading material, and exploitation.
CAB Equitable Portrayal Code, Clause 4 – Stereotyping
Recognizing that stereotyping is a form of generalization that is frequently simplistic, belittling, hurtful or prejudicial, while being unreflective of the complexity of the group being stereotyped, broadcasters shall ensure that their programming contains no unduly negative stereotypical material or comment which is based on matters of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.
CAB Equitable Portrayal Code, Clause 10 – Contextual Considerations
Broadcasts may fairly include material that would otherwise appear to breach one of the foregoing provisions in the following contextual circumstances:
- c) Intellectual treatment: Programming apparently for academic, artistic, humanitarian, journalistic, scientific or research purposes, or otherwise in the public interest, may be broadcast, provided that it: is not abusive or unduly discriminatory; does not incite contempt for, or severely ridicule, an enumerated group; and is not likely to incite or perpetuate hatred against an enumerated group.
The Panel Adjudicators read all of the correspondence and viewed the challenged segment. The majority of the Panel concludes that the broadcasts did not violate the aforementioned Code provisions. One adjudicator dissents with respect to Clause 3 of the CAB Equitable Portrayal Code.
A Political Discussion involving Matters of Race – The Majority’s View
In addition to viewing a recording of the broadcast giving rise to the complaints and examining the related correspondence, the Panel informed itself on the events that took place in London and other cities in the United Kingdom in the summer of 2011.
The Panel consulted certain publications that shed light precisely on the issue of racial tensions in the United Kingdom. Those most affected by these tensions, which were exacerbated by the serious economic and financial crisis throughout the UK, were low income people or those with a generally low level of education. One article noted that the London neighbourhoods or cities that suffered the worst riots during the summer of 2011 have large numbers of blacks. The article went on to point out that an analysis of the photos taken during the riots revealed that just over half of the demonstrators in Birmingham and Manchester were black, and were mostly black in the London areas of Tottenham, Hackney and Brixton. In contrast, there were no riots in Scotland, Wales and northeastern England where blacks are far less numerous.
The Panel considers an analysis of events which culminated in unprecedented riots in the United Kingdom during the summer of 2011 appears to bear out the hypothesis that was the subject of the discussion between the ByLine host, Brian Lilley, and his guest Michael Coren, who is originally from London.
In reply to a question by the host to the effect that the demonstrators organized the riots through text messages on Blackberrys, Michael Coren said, “Well, it’s not about poverty. It’s not about BlackBerrys. It’s about black thugs.” He added that the riots first erupted in Tottenham, which is the area he grew up in and that it was already bad at that time. He was of the opinion that this neighbourhood is even worse today and has been taken over by gangs of young black men, and stressed that, according to him, the problem is not about racism but about culture. He then noted that the riots began in neighbourhoods or cities having a large urban black population, adding that certain problems that are prevalent in black communities contribute to this upheaval, such as the absence of a father figure, drug culture, the glorification of aggressive behaviour, an increasing rate of teenage pregnancies and fathers abandoning their responsibilities. According to Michael Coren, these factors create a vicious circle primarily in the United Kingdom and rarely elsewhere in Europe.
The majority of the Panel concludes that, while the host, and especially the commentator Michael Coren, blamed the UK riots on the black community in certain London neighbourhoods, their discussion dealt rather with political and social issues and they did not make any abusive or unduly discriminatory comments with respect to black people in general. Nor did they use any unduly negative stereotypes in reference to black people in general. Finally, they did not otherwise portray the black population in general in a negative light through their comments.
The majority of the Panel therefore concludes that the comments made by host Brian Lilley and his guest Michael Coren in the August 9, 2011 edition of ByLine (rebroadcast on August 13, 2011) violated neither Clause 2 of the CAB Code of Ethics, nor Clauses 2, 3 and 4 of the CAB Equitable Portrayal Code. In addition, the majority concludes that given the circumstances, the broadcaster had the right to avail itself of Clause 10 of the CAB Equitable Portrayal Code and invoke contextual considerations with respect to the events addressed in the program.
Dissent of D.-Y. Leu
While I agree with the majority with respect to Clause 2 of the CAB Code of Ethics and Clauses 2 and 4 of the CAB Equitable Portrayal Code, I disagree with respect to Clause 3. Coren’s choice of words and the overall sense of his message was that black people were the sole cause of the riots. He repeatedly attributed the riots to “black thugs”, “black young men” and then broadened his scope when he said “you have to have a large urban black community; the rioting begins there.” Coren argued that it was “not about race, it’s about culture”, but, either way, he was labelling an identifiable group as the source of the problem. Although Coren acknowledged that there were white participants in the riots, he claimed that those white youth were simply trying to “pretend they’re part of black culture”, again linking the problem back to the black community. These comments were insulting and unfounded generalizations about the black community and clearly constituted an unduly negative portrayal of that group, contrary to Clause 3 of the CAB Equitable Portrayal Code.
In all CBSC decisions, the Panels assess the broadcaster’s response to the complainants. The broadcaster need not agree with the complainants, but it must respond in a courteous, thoughtful and thorough manner. In this case, Sun News Network provided replies to the complainants, presenting its reasoning for why Coren’s comments were acceptable. The broadcaster fulfilled its obligations of responsiveness and nothing further is required in this regard in this instance.
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.
 See the following CBSC decisions for other examples of discussions involving matters of race that did not violate the Codes: CFUN-AM re The Pia Shandel Show (Native Land Claims) (CBSC Decision 98/99-0147, October 14, 1999); and CJOB re the Adler on Line and Afternoons with Larry Updike Talk Shows (CBSC Decision 99/00-0092, May 5, 2000).