VRAK.TV re a promotional spot for Godzilla

QUEBEC REGIONAL PANEL
(CBSC Decision 02/03-0330)
T. Rajan (Vice Chair), B. Guérin, G. Moisan, R. Parent and P. Tancred

THE FACTS

A promotional spot for the cartoon Godzilla was apparently broadcast on numerous occasions by the specialty service VRAK.TV, one of those being Saturday January 18, 2003, at 9:06 am, during the animated program Jackie Chan.  The animated promo was done in the style of an old-fashioned silent movie using sepia tones, piano backgrounds and screens including the written dialogue accompanying the action clips.  In these clips, one saw different monsters, the faces of frightened individuals, and people trying to escape.  The first three panels read “Save us!” [translation],  “Help!” [translation] and “Help-me!” [translation].  Later on, one saw a monster on a cliff and two people running away from it.  The corresponding panel read “Idiotic monster!!!” [the likely equivalent Canadian interpretation of « Enfoiré de monstre!!! »].  A big snake appeared, spitting at the people and the relevant panel read “Bloody mess!!!” [the likely equivalent Canadian interpretation of « Bordel de merde!!! »].  One then saw Godzilla shaking its head and the panel read “Fwuiiiiiiii!!!”.  In the last scene, three people were talking to each other and the words on the panel said “We're saved!  It's Godzilla!” [translation].

The animated promo ended with the information that the show would be broadcast on Sunday at 8:00 am.

On November 22, the complainant sent a complaint to CRTC, which forwarded it to CBSC in due course, in accordance with established procedures.  It read in part as follows (the full text of this letter and all other correspondence can be found in the Appendix):

I am writing to you to complain about abusive language on VRAK.TV during prime viewing hours for very young children.

The promo for “Godzilla” features the following two phrases in print:

[.T]his promo is broadcast at almost any time throughout the day.

Earlier correspondence between the complainant and VRAK.TV, which had occurred prior to the CBSC's involvement, was attached to the complaint.  The complainant had initially contacted VRAK.TV by email on September 10, 2002, trying, it appears, to resolve the matter without actually launching an official complaint.  That September e-mail read :

Could you remove the following two phrases from the broadcast of “Godzilla”:

– « Bordel de merdre »

As the parent of two young children who can read, I am embarrassed each time I watch this with them.  I do not believe that you are contributing to the welfare of children by using such a bad choice of language that is particularly vulgar.  This abusive language has no place in a program targeted at young people.

An Audience Relations Representative of VRAK.TV had responded to the complainant on September 25 in part as follows:

We systematically pre-screen all our series to ensure that they comply with our code of ethics.  It may be that an inadvertent error in judgment took place during an evaluation session.

We will therefore forward your comments to the Programming Branch, which is always very sensitive to the comments of young people.

The complainant had written once more to VRAK.TV on November 4.

I don't know if they are sensitive, but I can assure you that I am. More than a month after your reply, the promo for “Godzilla” still contains the phrases “enfoiré de monstre” and “bordel de merde” (as seen in early November). The next time I see these words on your station, you can be certain that I shall lodge an official complaint with the appropriate body.

The complainant had received the following response from VRAK.TV.

Your complaint has indeed been forwarded to the appropriate people.  They are in fact the ones who, in the final analysis, had to decide if we should alter the said promo.  I imagine they determined that, according to our standards of ethics, we need not make these changes.  Without excusing a use of the French language that may be deemed unacceptable by some (and I agree with you completely on the impropriety of such terms), they must nevertheless be judged in a modern context.  Tune in to Radio-Canada, TQS or TVA or an American station and you will see that the use of far “graver” offensive language than that which you pointed out to us is widespread.  You will often hear swearing on Radio-Canada, but never on VRAK.TV.

I want to thank you for your comment.  I will, once again, forward it to the appropriate individuals.  I assure you, however, that a so-called “official complaint to the appropriate body” will not have any additional effect, since it is our practice to forward complaints of this type to the “appropriate body”.

After reviewing the complaint and attachments reviewed above, the CBSC informed the complainant that it would require specific dates and times of the broadcast of the promo in order to request tapes from the broadcaster.  After some additional correspondence, the complainant was able to pinpoint the required information.

Following the CBSC's offer to provide another response to the complainant, the Vice-President, Legal and Regulatory Affairs, wrote to the complainant on December 20:

We are aware of your e-mail to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) in which you convey your concerns about two visual sequences broadcast in the promo for the “Godzilla” cartoon on VRAK.TV.

[.] The purpose of this promo is to present a parody of the first Japanese version of the silent film, “Godzilla”, and of the French-style translation of the panels describing the action and containing the dialogue in the film.  These panels are included in the promo in the spirit of that context.  The expressions used in the promo are clearly meant to be a send-up in the sense that they are patently French expressions rarely used in Québec.

We believe this promo complies with the spirit of the Code of Ethics and other codes of voluntary application that VRAK.TV applies.  However, we do understand that the texts in the promos, when taken out of context, may affect the sensibilities of some viewers.  As we periodically review the promos, any modification that may be deemed necessary to the “Godzilla” promo will be made by the VRAK.TV team.

The complainant responded to VRAK.TV on December 21:

As you so aptly point out with respect to the promo for “Godzilla”, this is indeed good French from .  I would just like to point out to you that I am French and that my children are perfectly bilingual Franco-Quebeckers (French from France and French from Québec). I am perfectly willing to accept that this may not upset YOUR values.  But it does upset mine and those of my children.  Apparently, one must respect ethnicities, religions, values, etc.  This does not seem to concern you where French from France

You may be assured in any event that your letter will be forwarded to a large number of peoples.  I can't recall when I have been so insulted.  Thank you for this flagrant lack of respect for my nationality.

Had I had your upbringing, I would have lowered myself to expressing a few swear words from my country.  Since this is considered good for children, it should not offend you too much.  But, I won't give you the satisfaction.  Not even a little swear word.  I hope you are not too disappointed Madam.

Later the same day, the complainant added a few thoughts in another email:

Pardon me, but I forgot to add one detail in my previous e-mail!!!

– I – My wife, who is a dyed-in-the-wool Quebecker, is also offended by this language.  You see, some cultivated individuals who know about other countries and other customs can also be offended, even though they are Quebeckers and live in Québec.

– II – In the promo for “Sponge Bob” yesterday morning (19/02/2002), my wife was offended by the answer to a question concerning Bob, which was: “BECAUSE HE'S A PRICK”.
I know, I know, it's a parody on the French from France, using language that is not used in Québec and that complies with your ethics code (which, I should remind you incidentally, contains the expectation that you respect, among others, the values of other ethnicities)!!!

You would do well to turn on . your TV . and your scale of values and respect.

VRAK.TV sent yet another response to the complainant on January 22:

We have learned of your comments of Friday, December 20th in reply to our e-mail of the same date.  We wish to inform you that we are sorry our statements offended you and your wife.

We also wish to assure you that the spirit of our December 20th correspondence did not intend to be hurtful towards our viewers, as they are equally important to us regardless of their nationality.

The lengthy correspondence concluded at that point.  On January 7, in light of the clear disagreement between the parties with respect to the single substantive issue, the CBSC determined that, despite the absence of a formal Ruling Request, it would proceed with the adjudication of the matter.

THE DECISION

The CBSC's Quebec Regional Panel examined the complaint under Clauses 4 and 10 of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' (CAB) Code of Ethics, which read as follows.  Since the decision also mentions terms included in Clause 2, that text is also included.

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.

, Clause 4 – Children's Programs

     Recognizing that programs designed specifically for children reach impressionable minds and influence social attitudes and aptitudes, it shall be the responsibility of broadcasters to provide the closest possible supervision in the selection and control of material, characterizations and plot.

     Nothing in the foregoing shall mean that the vigour and vitality common to children's imaginations and love of adventure should be removed.  It does mean that such programs should be based upon sound social concepts and presented with a superior degree of craftsmanship, and that these programs should reflect the moral and ethical standards of contemporary Canadian society and encourage pro-social behaviour and attitudes.  Broadcasters should encourage parents to select from the richness of broadcasting fare the best programs to be brought to the attention of their children.

     Broadcasters shall refer to the Voluntary Code Regarding Violence in Television Programming for special provisions relating to the depiction of violence in children's programming.

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 10 – Television Broadcasting

Promotional material which contains sexually explicit material or coarse or offensive language intended for adult audiences, shall not be telecast before 9 pm.

The Quebec Regional Panel viewed a tape of the Godzilla promo and reviewed all of the correspondence.  It does not consider that the broadcast of the promo violated either of the foregoing provisions of the CAB Code of Ethics.

The Language at Issue

It is curious that coarse or offensive English language issues have frequently been a matter for consideration by CBSC Panels while rarely rising on the French language horizon.  For some of the English coarse language decisions, see, among others, CFRA-AM re the Steve Madely Show (CBSC Decision 93/94-0295, Novembre 15, 1994), CHAN-TV re Sportscast (CBSC Decision 95/96-0108, December 18, 1996), CIRK-FM re T-Shirt Promotion Sport (CBSC Decision 96/97-0206, December 16, 1997), CIQC-AM re Galganov in the Morning (CBSC Decision 97/98-0473, August 14, 1998), Showcase Television re the movie Destiny to Order (CBSC Decision 00/01-0715, January 16, 2002).

The only comparable French language decision, which involved the challenged words « christ », « tabernac' », « calice » and « hostie », was that of CKAC-AM re a segment by Michel Beaudry (CBSC Decision 01/02-0966, December 20, 2002).  In that instance, this Panel concluded:

In the case at hand, the Québec Regional Panel agrees with the broadcaster that the words in question have slipped into common and marginally acceptable usage [.].

The Panel understands, and is sensitive to, the perspective of the complainant.  It concludes, however, that, while the words may be unacceptable in some households and are certainly not tasteful, they are not today so severe as to restrict their usage on radio, especially in the very early hours of the morning, namely between the hours of 4:00 and 5:00 am.

In the view of the Panel, the religious tradition of the words central to the CKAC decision rendered them instinctively more offensive than the challenged words in the matter at hand.  Indeed, it is the expectation of the Panel that the words at issue here are either not broadly known to Canadian Francophones or, to the extent known, have a far less scatological nature than they allegedly do to European Francophones (according to the complainant, who may or may not himself be representative of European Francophone attitudes on the matter at hand).  In any event, it behoved the Panel to verify the point.  It learned, with some interest, that the word « enfoiré », which is the key word in the first of the expressions at issue, could not even be found in Louis-Alexandre Bélisle's Dictionnaire nord-américan de la langue fran çaise(Montréal : Beauchemin, 1979), Léandre Bergeron's Dictionnaire de la langue québécoise (Montréal : Beauchemin, 1997), or Lionel Meney's Dictionnaire québécois fran çais(Montréal : Guérin, 1999).

In two other Quebec dictionaries, it was found but generally with a far less problematic meaning than that alleged to be the concern in FranceIn Jean-Claude Boulanger's Dictionnaire québécois d'aujourd'hui (Montréal : Dicorobert, 1992), the only usage for the word, which serves either as an adjective or a noun, was « Imbécile, maladroit. idiot, malade, niaiseux ; fam[ilier] cave, con » and the examples given are, a s a noun, « Quel est l'enfoiré qui m'a coupé le chemin? » and, as an adjective, « Elle est enfoirée. »  In the Dictionnaire du fran çais plus : À l'usage des francophones d'Amérique (Montréal : Centre éducatif et Culturel , 1988), the usage which the Panel assumes was the complainant's principal concern was noted, namely, « Souillé d'excréments », but with the limited description “vulgar”, while the other usage, « Idiot, abruti » was denoted “popular”.  Even Gaston Esnault's Dictionnaire historique des argots fran çais (Paris : Librairie Larousse, 1965) provides only a single meaning, namely « Imbécile », and Le Grand Robert de la langue fran çaise (Paris : Dictionnaire Le Robert, 2001) , which acknowledges the vulgar usage, equally provides « Idiot […] Imbécile, maladroit » as well as literary extracts supporting that understanding.  On balance, while giving the benefit of the doubt to the complainant regarding the extent of the offensiveness of the terms in France, the Quebec Panel has no doubt about the intended (and customary) meaning of the term in this country.

As to the other offending phrase, « Bordel de merde », nothing like the same inquiry is required.  Neither of the nouns is shocking in the Canadian context and put together they rather resemble the corresponding Anglophone expression, a “bloody mess”, which would be rather more offensive in England than in Canada.  Few persons without some British background would be the least bit troubled by a reference to “a bloody mess” in Canada, while someone with such background would likely be offended by the expression.  The Panel understands the English and French versions of « Bordel de merde » to be offensive on the Old Worldshores of the Atlanticand of little irreverent moment on the New World shores.

In sum, the terms« Enfoiré de monstre » and « Bordel de merde », have either not established themselves in French Canada at all or have garnered meanings, which, while “common” in their nature and perhaps a trifle risqué for refined company, do not share the harsh vulgarity of such words on French soil.  The terms are simply trivial and insignificant in the Canadian context and certainly do not rise to the level of a breach of the Code clauses cited above.

The Standard to Apply in Judging Coarse Language

For purposes of the resolution of this question, the Panel continues to assume that the words used in the written sections of the promo would be offensive in France and would not be in Quebec.  The question for it to resolve is whether, in such hypothetical circumstances, the Panel should apply the offensive language standards of France or of Quebec.  The complainant declares his entitlement as a native of Franceand that of his children, bilingual Franco-Quebecers (that is, speakers of the French of France and that of Quebec), to have their linguistic standards respected.  The broadcaster, on the other hand, argues that the use of French language terms “very rarely employed in Quebec” reflects the parodying nature of the usage in this Quebec promo.  The complainant counters that this response is insufficient, and that other ethnicities must be respected.

The issue for the Panel is, in some respects, more straightforward than the position enunciated by the broadcaster.  The question is not so much the parodic nature of the on-screen panels as it is the words themselves and how shall they be judged?

This matter is, in the Quebec Panel's view, very different from that which it frequently considers in the area of human rights.  In the latter context, all CBSC Panels are extremely careful to ensure that no “abusive or unduly discriminatory” comment is made based on “national or ethnic origin”, among other things.  The Panel views this issue not merely as one of offence but rather one which goes to fundamental issues of harm, injury and damage done to the nature and personality of a targeted group.  In the case at hand, the issue is different.  It is neither fundamental nor essential.  The words are not targeted at the complainant.  They offend him (and his family) but they do not go to his, or their, nature or essence.  They are not an attribute of his ethnicity.  That ethnicity or background makes him sensitive to the use of those words, which are, he says, not proper in his land of origin, but are far less offensive, if offensive at all, in his land of adoption.  It is, in the opinion of the Panel, the latter standards which are to be applied.  Content appreciation is a local, not an international, question.  Standards relating to coarse or offensive language or other such issues will be judged in local, not international, terms.  This is not to say that the same view on a particular point may not be universally held.  It may, of course, but it is local sensibilities which are germane and by which the matter in each instance must be judged.  It is, after all, on that basis that the Codes were developed in the first place.  The job of broadcasters in respecting the breadth of local tastes and concerns is difficult enough.  The skills they apply in this regard must be finely honed.  It would be unreasonable that they also be held to standards from outside their expected audience ambit.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

It is the practice of all CBSC Adjudicating Panels to assess the broadcaster's responsiveness to the complainant.  Although it is, of course, the case that the broadcaster need not agree with the complainant, it is expected that its representatives charged with replying to complaints will address the complainant's concerns in a thorough and respectful manner.  In this case, the initial response from a representative of audience relations was unfortunately inappropriate.   By saying that a “formal complaint to whom it may concern would have no additional consequence since we [VRAK.TV] already forward such complaints to whom it may concern” essentially cuts off the complaints process without informing the complainant that the CBSC exists specifically to deal with such matters.  Moreover, it is an obligation of members to advise complainants of the existence of such a recourse.  In any event, in this instance, it is a good thing that the complainant was as persistent as he was, thus ensuring that the complaint would reach the CBSC's adjudication process.

Leaving aside the foregoing error, VRAK.TV undeniably manifested its willingness to engage in a protracted series of e-mails with the complainant, both before and after the CBSC became involved in the file, in an attempt to resolve the matter without adjudication.  The Panel finds that VRAK.TV has met its responsibilities of responsiveness.  Nothing further is required in this regard on this occasion.

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.