Sun News Network re The Source (Idle No More)

NATIONAL SPECIALTY SERVICES Panel
CBSC Decision 12/13-0985
D. Ish (Chair, ad hoc), G. Bonin (ad hoc), D. Braun (ad hoc), F. Niemi, C. Sephton, R. Waksman

The facts

The Source with Ezra Levant is a political discussion program.  Levant provides his opinions on various news stories, political events and current affairs.  The program airs weekdays from 5:00-6:00 pm Eastern time and is rebroadcasted from 10:00-11:00 pm.

In December 2012 and January 2013, Sun News Network broadcast coverage and discussion of Idle No More, which is a First Nations protest movement.  Some Idle No More supporters believed that Sun News Network’s coverage of the movement was biased and unfair.  They staged a protest outside the Toronto offices of Sun News on January 19, 2013.  Levant himself went outside with a microphone and a cameraman to talk to the protestors.  He then included some of that footage in an episode of his program.

Following that broadcast, he received feedback from viewers and revisited the topic on his program of January 23.  He replayed the footage of himself talking to the protestors and indicated that some viewers had contacted him to tell him who some of the protestors were.  He presented one clip of a man and a woman at the protest.  In the clip, the man told Levant that he would not speak to him because Levant “distort[s] everything and I don’t respect anything that you do”.  Levant stated the alleged names of the man and woman and accused them of being professional disrupters and law-breakers.  He then showed an image of a Facebook page featuring a photograph of supposedly the same man and woman at a different protest.  Levant stated “They’re up there breaking the law.  They’re not Indian.  They just use Indians as a front, as an excuse, as a cover to make their ruckus.”  Levant also identified other protestors by name and provided information about them.  He asserted that many of the protestors were not even “Indian” (Aboriginal) and were just part of a group of “rent-a-mob” protestors who choose an issue each week about which to complain.  (A transcript of the segment can be found in Appendix A.)

On February 12, the CBSC received a complaint from the woman whom Levant had alleged was at the protest.  She wrote that neither she nor her husband had, in fact, been at the protest or even in Toronto at the time.  She also complained that Levant had demeaned and ridiculed them on air by calling them professional disrupters and accusing them of using Aboriginal causes as an excuse to protest.  She listed the articles of the codes which she believed had been violated.

Sun News Network responded to the complainant on March 1, stating that it had aired a correction on The Source episode of February 8.  The complainant wrote back on March 4 stating that she found Sun News Network’s response insufficient.  She outlined her concerns more thoroughly, pointing out that the broadcaster had not checked its facts before erroneously announcing that she and her husband had attended the protest outside The Sun offices.  She further complained that the program had presented an inaccurate view of the Idle No More movement because it had intentionally excluded clips of the actual Aboriginal participants in order to suggest that the movement was primarily made up of non-Aboriginal people.  She also reiterated that Levant had belittled her and tarnished her reputation.  (The text of all correspondence can be found in Appendix B.)

Sun News Network provided the CBSC with a copy of the correction it had aired on February 8.  Towards the end of The Source episode, Levant made the following statement:

I’d like to make a correction today.  Remember the episode we did when we tried to identify some of the angry, left-wing activists who were protesting outside the Sun’s office last month?  [clips of that episode are visible on a television set in the background]  Well, we thought that a couple of the activists outside were the husband and wife team of protestors named [S. S.] and [D. M.].  They’ve got a history of protesting.  For example, they were down at the illegal blockade of a rail line during the Idle No More protests in Sarnia.  Well, [S.] wrote to us saying that her [sic] and her husband were not in fact at the protest at the Toronto Sun.  They weren’t even in Toronto.  We originally compared other photos of them to our footage and believed it was them, but I’ll take [S.]s’ word for it.  She says she wasn’t there and that’s good enough for me.  Folks, I’m Ezra Levant, fighting for freedom every day.  We’ll see you tomorrow.  Bye-bye.

 

The Decision

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

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.

CAB Code of Ethics, 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.

RTDNA Code of Ethics, Article 7 – Corrections

Errors will be quickly acknowledged and publicly corrected on all platforms.

The Panel Adjudicators read all of the correspondence and viewed the episodes in question of The Source.  The Panel concludes that Sun News Network violated Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics for erroneously stating that the complainant was at the protest, but that it met the requirements of Article 7 of the RTDNA Code of Ethics by airing the correction.

 

The Panel Adjudicators note that the program The Source, hosted daily by Levant on the Sun News Network, is a public affairs program during which the host expresses his opinion on current affairs, often with much conviction.  It is not a news program as such.  Nevertheless, even in this type of program, the broadcaster is obligated to ensure the accuracy of the facts presented. 1

In this case, Sun News should have done a more thorough verification of the accuracy of the information provided with respect to the presence of the complainant and her husband at the protest.  Given the facts, the Panel must conclude that the broadcaster violated the provisions of Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics by broadcasting erroneous information.

The Panel Adjudicators also note, however, that Levant corrected the information in question a few days later on February 8, 2013, that is, four days before the complainant filed her complaint with the CBSC.  In the view of the Panel Adjudicators, the correction broadcast on February 8 towards the end of the program was sufficient in the circumstances and met the requirements of Article 7 of the RTDNA Code of Ethics.

 

In addition, the complainant alleged that, in her opinion, Levant demonstrated bias against the Idle No More movement by omitting certain clips filmed during the protest in which representatives of the Aboriginal community were seen and heard and did so with the intention of attributing the protest to people whom he called “professional” protestors (the “rent-a-mob”).  According to the complainant, this constituted a violation of the codes.

The Panel Adjudicators note that the CBSC’s jurisprudence has consistently stated that it is the broadcasters themselves who decide the content of their programs.  It is also at the discretion of the broadcasters which angle they will take when covering various subjects. 2

In addition, hosts of opinion programs, like Levant, are fully entitled to state their opinions on political issues, even if those viewpoints are controversial. 3   The Panel therefore concludes that Levant did not violate any provisions of Clauses 6 or 7 of the CAB Code of Ethics in expressing his opinion about the Idle No More movement.

 

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In all CBSC decisions, the Panels assess the broadcaster’s response to the complainant.  The broadcaster need not agree with the complainant’s position, but it must respond in a courteous, thoughtful and thorough manner.  In this case, Sun News Network provided a reply to the complainant, pointing out that it had aired a correction following receipt of her information.  It also responded to her multiple times when she continued to assert that the station had not done enough to rectify the situation.  The broadcaster fulfilled its obligations of responsiveness and nothing further is required in this regard in this instance.

 

When a broadcaster violates one or more codes, the CBSC customarily requires the station to announce the CBSC finding on air.  In this case, Sun News Network aired a correction two weeks later once it had been informed that the complainant had not actually been at the protest.  Although this broadcast did not appease the complainant, it did satisfy the CBSC requirements to acknowledge errors on air.  The CBSC thus does not require Sun News Network to make any further on-air statements in this case. 4

 

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.

1 See the following CBSC decisions in which this principle was explained and code breaches were found:  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); Sun News Network re The Source (Edmonton Artists’ Housing) (CBSC Decision 10/11-2102 & -2124, March 28, 2012); CITS-TV re It’s Your Call (CBSC Decision 10/11-2217 & 11/12-0442+, August 29, 2012).

 

2 CFTO-TV re Newscast (Pollution) (CBSC Decision 92/93-0178, May 17, 1993); CFMT-TV re South Asian Newsweek (CBSC Decision 95/96-0160, October 21, 1996); CHAN-TV re Newscast (Recycling Society) (CBSC Decision 96/97-0004, March 10, 1997)

 

3 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); Sun News Network re Canada Live (Margie Gillis interview) (CBSC Decision 10/11-1803+, December 15, 2011); V re Face à face (student protest) (CBSC Decision 11/12-1495+, April 25, 2012)

 

4 See the following previous CBSC decisions where the Council also did not require an on-air announcement:  CJMR-AM re the Voice of Croatia (CBSC Decision 92/93-0205, February 15, 1994); OMNI.1 re an episode of the Jimmy Swaggart Telecast (CBSC Decision 04/05-0097, April 19, 2005); CKRS-AM re comments made on Champagne pour tout le monde (CBSC Decision 06/07-0904, August 20, 2008); CJAB-FM re comments made on 94.5 Le Matin (CBSC Decision 11/12-1392, September 6, 2012); Sun News Network re The Source (Theft Ring) (CBSC Decision 12/13-0069+, September 9, 2013).