The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council Varies in Part The Decision of the Atlantic Regional Panel re the Song “Money for Nothing”

Ottawa, August 31, 2011 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its review of the Atlantic Regional Panel decision in CHOZ-FM re the song “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits.  The original decision was rendered January 12, 2011.  In it, the Atlantic Panel concluded that the broadcast of the original version of the song, which included the word “faggot” three times, breached the Human Rights and other clauses of the CAB Code of Ethics and the CAB Equitable Portrayal Code.  There was considerable public reaction to the decision from across the country, expressed both in e-mails as well as in the print and electronic media.

The CRTC’s Request
The Secretary General of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which had received considerable feedback directly from the public, wrote to the National Chair of the CBSC.  In that letter, referring to the new “national scope of this matter, the strong public reaction to the Atlantic Panel’s decision, and the considerable experience of the CBSC in reviewing such matters,” the CRTC requested that the “CBSC should appoint a panel with a national composition to reconsider the matter and review the new correspondence regarding this song.”  In that reconsideration, the CRTC requested that the CBSC seek submissions from the public “by means of a public request for comments via your website” and, in so doing, “take into consideration all relevant factors,” including the context and prominence of the challenged word, the age and origin of the song, and the length of time and frequency of its airplay.

In accordance with the CRTC’s request, the CBSC sought comments from the public via the CBSC website.  It had already had the benefit of some additional useful information relating to the background of the song that it had received from individuals in response to the decision of the Atlantic Regional Panel, material that had not been submitted to the Atlantic Panel at the time of its decision.  The CBSC also convened a specially-constituted Panel made up of long-serving Adjudicators from each of the five regions (British Columbia, the Prairies, Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces), as well as the permanently constituted National Panels.

Additional Information
On the basis of the CBSC’s on-line solicitation, as well as the many e-mails from persons reacting to the Atlantic Panel decision,

the National Panel has been alerted to considerable additional information relating to the song’s context, which the Panel finds to be of great value.  While there is no way to be sure, the majority of the National Panel appreciates that, had that information been available to the Adjudicators on the Atlantic Regional Panel at the time of its decision, that Panel might have come to a different conclusion.

Alternative (Edited) Versions of the Song
Among other things, the National Panel learned that alternative versions of the song (without the challenged word) by Dire Straits exist and have existed since 1985, the year in which the song was first released.  Of the band’s three live albums, only one includes “Money for Nothing” and other words have been substituted for two of the three contested words there.  All three of the compilation albums include versions of “Money for Nothing” in which the “other f-word” has been entirely removed.  In the 23 live concerts on YouTube by either Dire Straits or Mark Knopfler alone (after the break-up of the band), 17 do not include the “other f-word” even once, 5 include it only once, and only one includes all three uses.  In terms of current on-line access (via iTunes) to the audio recording of the song, three of the five Dire Straits versions of “Money for Nothing” include no usages of the “other f-word” and the other two include all three usages.

In other words, the band and the composer considered that there was a less offensive way of presenting the song to the public as long ago as the year in which the original version was released.

The Challenged Word
The National Panel has taken note of the fact that, despite the admittedly considerable critical reaction to the overall conclusion of the Atlantic Panel decision, hardly any e-mailed voices were raised against that Panel’s evaluation of the word “faggot”.  The arguments made by the public tended to relate to issues such as context and the long-term acceptance of the classic song; there was little or no argument made in favour of the public acceptability of the “other f-word”.  One of the voices supporting this aspect of the original decision (cited in the National Panel decision) said:

I’m gay. I’ve heard the word “faggot” as people threw glass bottles at me and the guy I was dating. I heard the word “faggot” again when I was kicked and beaten for no other reason than they thought I was gay and thus some kind of threat. I hate the word. It’s used to express hatred. I’d personally be happy never to hear it again.

In explaining its determination not to interfere with the conclusion of the Atlantic Regional Panel with respect to the word “faggot”, the National Panel:

would, however, add to that anodyne conclusion the fact that the word is not merely discriminatory and insulting, but it is also aggressive, hurtful and painful.  Even if there was a time when the word had a more benign connotation, or, even if it did not, was less socially unacceptable, that time is past.  While it is obvious that broadcasters, and society as a whole, have considerable occasion to refer to identifiable groups, the way in which they do so is important.  After all, the power of the broadcast microphone is undeniable.  Broadcasters must take particular care to use language which is neither abusive nor unduly discriminatory and which will not have the effect of desensitizing audiences by spreading the use of hurtful and painful terminology.

The Issue of Context
On the issue of context, one of the Adjudicators dissented (see below).  On the basis of the submissions and e-mails to the CBSC, the view of the majority of the National Panel was that there was a story behind the song and that “the composer’s language appears not to have had an iota of malevolent or insulting intention.”

The words were, as he [the composer] has consistently explained publicly since 1986, written, indeed virtually recorded verbatim, by him as he observed a guy working in an appliance store in New York City.  As Knopfler said, that “bonehead who worked for the store, a great big macho guy with a, you know with a checked shirt on and a cap and a pair of work boots” was looking up at MTV and bemoaning his fate relative to the musical performer on the television screen.  The composer, apparently captivated by the rather coarse, but very real, language of the labourer, explained that he “borrowed a bit of paper and started to write the song down in the store.  I wanted to use a lot of the language that the real guy actually used when I heard him, because it was more real.  It just went better with the song, it was more muscular.”  It was, in that sense, more a commentary on the worker than the MTV performer.  If anything, it reflected jealousy on the part of the former at the achievements of the latter.

On the basis of the foregoing information, the Panel considered that the use of the “other f-word” in the song was contextually justified on two grounds.

The majority of the National Panel is, in other words, of the view that the story told in this song, developed at some length over more than eight minutes, provides sufficient plot development, story line and context to justify the application of the legitimate artistic usage exception in Clause 10(a).  The Panel has already made its unanimous views on the unacceptability of the word “faggot” very clear earlier in this decision; however, this contextual consideration alone would justify the usage of that word in the context of the broadcast of this song.

To the foregoing point, the National Panel, once again dependent on its understanding of the composer’s intent and perspective in the creation of “Money for Nothing”, would add that it considers that the exception provided in Clause 10(b) (Comedic, humorous or satirical usage) is also applicable. […]The majority of the Panel concludes that Mark Knopfler has satirized the jealous attitude of the “bonehead in the checked shirt” who was his inspiration and that he has done so deftly, and with a light and genuine touch.  The Panel concludes that this contextual consideration would also on its own justify the usage of the otherwise unacceptable word “faggot” in the context of the broadcast of this song.

The Dissenting View
The one dissenting Adjudicator took the position that the evaluation of the context should not result from off-air information, but rather from contextual information contained in or introducing the broadcast of the song.

As to the principle that context may be relevant in justifying an otherwise inappropriate term or description, I am in entire agreement.  What I question is how we determine what that context is.  Indeed, I put some emphasis on the word “we” for I believe that the context should not be appreciated or evaluated through the ears and eyes of the Panel.  The context, in this or any future situation, should be assessed through the ears and eyes of the public.  The context should not be the result of documentary submissions or research off the airwaves; it should be evident from the actual broadcast. […]  The issue for me is how the listeners have the necessary contextual information.  While I would understand the broadcast of the song with an introduction that provided the Mark Knopfler composition background, I do not find the contextual evidence present in the broadcast of the song with which the Atlantic Regional Panel dealt.  I believe that many of the people criticizing that Panel’s decision were supplying their own context based on what they knew of the background to the song.  That, of course, leaves out a whole demographic of younger individuals, say, those under 30, who would probably be unable to supply the missing context, not to mention those of any age who might not be familiar with the back story of the composition.

The Age of the Song
The National Panel had the opportunity to review a range of submissions on the time/age issue.  Since the Panel concluded that the use of the challenged word was acceptable in the context of this song, its finding on the age of the performance would only be relevant if applied in the context of another decision on a similar point at some time in the future.  Nonetheless, the Panel said:

The ad hoc National Panel’s view is that age alone will not “save” a challenged song but the Panel does acknowledge that it is one of the factors to consider.  That said, in the matter at hand, given its contextual conclusions (above), the Panel judges that the age of “Money for Nothing” is not a material issue.  Moreover, the Panel does believe that the fact that an offending word may have been acceptable in 1985 or 1995 does not mean that it would remain so in 2010, 2025 or 2050.  Nor, the Panel wishes to add, do awards earned by a song assist in determining its playability on the airwaves.  Such recognitions go to the reason for a broadcaster choosing to put a song in rotation; they are not of any assistance in assuring that such broadcasts meet the broadcasters’ own codified standards.

The Conclusion
The following are the three conclusions of the ad hoc National Panel regarding the broadcast of the original version of “Money for Nothing” on licensed Canadian radio stations:

In the end, the ad hoc National Panel considers that the Atlantic Regional Panel was correct in its view of the inappropriateness of the word “faggot” for broadcast on Canadian airwaves.  Whether or not the challenged word was at one time less unacceptable, perhaps as recently as 25 years ago, it no longer is.

The National Panel wishes to make perfectly clear to those persons who have commended the CBSC for its “brave” position regarding the disapproval of the hateful and painful term that it is not abandoning that position or the CBSC’s sensitivity to their concern.  It is only saying that there may be circumstances in which even words designating unacceptably negative portrayal may be acceptable because of their contextual usage.  The ad hoc National Panel finds this one such occasion.

[Alternative versions of the song] are available for broadcast and, to the extent that broadcasters wish to respect that sensitivity of members of their audience, they have the option to make that airplay choice without any editing of the song on their part.  While, for the reasons given in this decision, the ad hoc National Panel concludes that the original version does not breach the private broadcasters’ codified standards, it would encourage broadcasters to make the airplay choice appropriate to their market.

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 and the pay television Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic ethics created by the RTNDA – Association of Electronic Journalists in 1970.  Nearly 730 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