Sun News Network re Canada Live (Margie Gillis interview)

national specialty services Panel
R. Cohen (Chair), M. Bulgutch (ad hoc), S. Crawford (ad hoc), D. Dobbie (ad hoc), D.-Y. Leu, D. Ward

The facts

Sun News Network broadcasts a public affairs program called Canada Live hosted by Krista Erickson.  The program consists of discussions and debates on political issues and current events.  In one segment of the June 1, 2011 broadcast, Erickson interviewed Canadian interpretive dancer Margie Gillis about public funding to the arts (the full transcript of the interview is available in Appendix A).  Erickson introduced the segment by saying “Friends, buckle up and get ready for some great TV.”  She then introduced Gillis by listing some of the dancer’s accomplishments and calling her a “national treasure” and an “iconic interpretive dancer”.  Sun News then displayed on the screen the dollar amounts of various government-administered grants that Gillis and her dance foundation had received since 1998.  Erickson challenged Gillis on why she and her dance foundation should receive taxpayers’ money.  Gillis argued that she and her foundation do research on creative issues that “have value for the soul” and the community.  Gillis mentioned some of her national and international accomplishments.  She also suggested that the numbers Erickson was presenting were possibly skewed and that the amounts had actually been distributed over a longer time frame.  Gillis pointed out that the arts need government funding because they are often not profitable on their own and she argued that artists are good at making a small amount of money go a long way.

Erickson was forceful in her position against taxpayer funding of the arts and, at times, the two women talked over each other.  Erickson stated that Gillis’ style of art was not her “cup of tea” and waved her arms to imitate Gillis’ style of dance.  At one point in the exchange, Gillis commented that artists make sacrifices for their art.  Erickson then played a clip of a statement Gillis had made previously in which Gillis had said that she no longer felt she was living in a compassionate society.  Erickson asked Gillis if she felt that Canada had not demonstrated sufficient compassion by giving her large amounts of government grants and by sending soldiers to fight and die in Afghanistan.  Gillis asserted that her comment had not at all meant to refer to the compassion of, or ultimate sacrifice made by, Canadian soldiers.

Just prior to a commercial break, Erickson asked Gillis if she would remain on the program to continue their discussion and Gillis said that she would.  After that commercial break, Erickson allowed Gillis time to describe the type of dance research that her foundation undertakes in the area of conflict resolution, but continued to challenge Gillis on her receipt of government money.  At the end of the interview, which had lasted just over 21 minutes, Erickson told Gillis that she appreciated that Gillis had taken the time to appear on the program and “we salute you for that”.

The CBSC received 6,676 complaints about this broadcast, primarily as a result of a campaign orchestrated on the social media website Facebook.  Complainants felt that Gillis and the arts had been treated unfairly.  Some also mentioned that the dollar figures presented by Sun News were questionable.  Due to the large number of complaints, the CBSC did not provide all complainants with the opportunity to request a ruling.  Of the complainants who were provided with that opportunity, six individuals filed Ruling Requests (all correspondence relating to their files is available in Appendix B).

Sun News responded to the complainants.  It pointed out that Sun News Network’s mandate is “to explore topics and issues in a thought-provoking, fearless and hard-hitting way.”  The station pointed out that it was a lengthy interview in which Margie Gillis had been given the opportunity to defend her support for funding to the arts and that she “did so, forcefully and articulately.”  Sun News argued that it was allowed to be controversial and to take on contentious subjects.

 

The Decision

The National Specialty Services Panel examined the complaints under the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics:

Clause 6 – Full, Fair and Proper Presentation

It is recognized that the full, fair and proper presentation of news, opinion, comment and editorial is the prime and fundamental responsibility of each broadcaster.  This principle shall apply to all radio and television programming, whether it relates to news, public affairs, magazine, talk, call-in, interview or other broadcasting formats in which news, opinion, comment or editorial may be expressed by broadcaster employees, their invited guests or callers.

Clause 7 – Controversial Public Issues

Recognizing in a democracy the necessity of presenting all sides of a public issue, it shall be the responsibility of broadcasters to treat fairly all subjects of a controversial nature.  Time shall be allotted with due regard to all the other elements of balanced program schedules, and the degree of public interest in the questions presented.  Recognizing that healthy controversy is essential to the maintenance of democratic institutions, broadcasters will endeavour to encourage the presentation of news and opinion on any controversy which contains an element of the public interest.

The Panel Adjudicators read all of the correspondence and viewed the interview segment in question.  The Panel concludes that the broadcast did not violate either of the aforementioned clauses of the CAB Code of Ethics.

 

Almost all of the complainants took the view that host Krista Erickson had attacked Margie Gillis and treated her unfairly.  On that specific point, the CBSC has explained in previous decisions that hosts of discussion programs are allowed to reveal their opinions on the topics being discussed, even if those opinions are controversial, unpopular and provocative.1   Hosts are also fully entitled to determine the course of an interview and to raise topics that an interviewee might not have anticipated. 2

The National Specialty Services Panel has no information as to whether or not Gillis had been advised beforehand that Erickson intended to challenge her on the funding she had received for her dance foundation.  Although Gillis appeared somewhat unprepared to discuss precise numbers, she was nevertheless able to respond to Erickson’s questions more generally by presenting her views on the social value of her form of dance and the arts.  The Panel also considers that Erickson was somewhat mocking when she waved her hands in imitation of Gillis’ dance style.  The Panel concludes that these issues relate more to issues of courtesy and politeness and do not constitute Code breaches.  Indeed, in many previous decisions, the CBSC has found that the Codes allow for hosts to be biased and aggressive in their presentation of views and questioning of interviewees.  It is only when hosts have directed nasty personal insults at individuals that the CBSC has found violations of Clause 6. 3   While Erickson was forceful, she did not make any nasty comments about Gillis personally.  In fact, she made positive comments about Gillis’ accomplishments and expressed her appreciation for Gillis’ participation in the interview.

In addition, although there were moments when Erickson and Gillis were both talking at the same time, Gillis was provided ample time and opportunity in the course of the 21 minutes to state her position.  Also, in the latter half of the interview, Erickson invited Gillis to explain further the work of her dance foundation.  Gillis clearly “held her own” in the face of Erickson’s aggressive questioning; she responded ably and articulately.  Erickson also gave Gillis the opportunity to leave the program at the commercial break, but Gillis chose to stay.  The positions both “for” and “against” government funding for the arts were clearly presented during the segment, so there is no violation of Clause 7 for lack of balance.

 

Some complainants questioned the accuracy of the dollar amounts presented by Erickson regarding the funding and grants received by the Margie Gillis Dance Foundation.  While program hosts are fully entitled to present their opinions on various topics, any factual information used to support those opinions must be accurate. 4   The Panel notes that the Canada Council for the Arts website allows users to search for the names of grant recipients, including year, amount and purpose.  According to that website, the list of figures and information that Canada Live presented on screen were accurate.  The Panel has some concerns about the accuracy of including the Walter Carsen prize in the list of taxpayer-funded grants because it is in fact an endowment fund established by Mr. Carsen and simply administered by the Canada Council for the Arts.  Despite its concern, the Panel considers that that misrepresentation was minor and did not impact the overall debate that occurred between Erickson and Gillis on Canada Live.  There is no violation of Clause 6 in that respect.

 

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In all CBSC decisions, the Panels assess the broadcaster’s response to the complainant(s).  The broadcaster certainly need not agree with the complainant’s position, but it must respond in a courteous, thoughtful and thorough manner.  In this case, Sun News provided a lengthy and detailed reply to the complainants outlining its position regarding the interview.  Sun News Network has clearly met 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.

1 CTV re an episode of the Shirley Show (CBSC Decision 93/94-0261, August 18, 1995); CFUN-AM the Pia Shandel Show (Native Land Claims) (CBSC Decision 98/99-0147, October 14, 1999); CKTB-AM re the John Michael Show (Middle East Commentary) (CBSC Decision 01/02-0651, June 7, 2002); CKNW-AM re an episode of Bruce Allen’s Reality Check (CBSC Decision 05/06-0651, May 9, 2006)

2 CJMF-FM re an interview on Bouchard en parle (CBSC Decision 04/05-1852, February 3, 2006)

3 CHOI-FM re Le monde parallèle de Jeff Fillion (CBSC Decision 02/03-0115, July 17, 2003); CJRC-AM re an interview by Daniel Séguin on L’Outaouais ce matin (CBSC Decision 03/04-2082 & 04/05-0023, April 4, 2005); CJMF-FM re an interview on Bouchard en parle (CBSC Decision 04/05-1852, February 3, 2006); CHMP-FM re a segment on Le Journal du midi (CBSC Decision 07/08-0553, April 7, 2008)

4 CKTB-AM re The John Michael Show (CBSC Decision 92/93-0170, February 15, 1994); CILQ-FM re John Derringer’s “Tool of the Day” (CBSC Decision 02/03-1465, February 10, 2004); CFRA-AM re an episode of the Lowell Green Show (the Qur’an) (CBSC Decision 05/06-1380, May 18, 2006); CHRB-AM (AM 1140) re an episode of Freedom Radio Network (CBSC Decision 05/06-1959, January 9, 2007); CITS-TV re Word.ca and Word TV (CBSC Decision 08/09-2142 & 09/10-0383+, June 22, 2010); CHOI-FM re Dupont le midi (community organizations) (CBSC Decision 08/09-1506, September 23, 2010); CITS-TV re Word TV (CBSC Decisions 10/11-0068, April 5, 2011)