Airing of Stéphane Dion Interview False Starts Violated Broadcast Codes, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, May 27, 2009 - The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released two decisions (1, 2) concerning the broadcast of three false starts of an interview by CTV anchor Steve Murphy with Liberal leader Stéphane Dion during the October 2008 federal election campaign. Each restart had been requested by Mr. Dion and granted by Mr. Murphy, CJCH-TV (CTV Atlantic)’s news anchor.

One decision related to the first broadcast of the false starts (which were followed by the broadcast of the full 12-minute interview) on CTV Atlantic’s newscast CTV News at 6 on October 9. The other related to the rebroadcast by CTV Newsnet of the restarts on the public affairs discussion program Mike Duffy Live Prime Time later that same evening. The CBSC concluded that both broadcasts violated certain provisions of the Radio Television News Directors of Canada (RTNDA) Code of (Journalistic) Ethics and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics.

Steve Murphy’s first question to Stéphane Dion was: “If you were prime minister now, what would you have done about the economy and this crisis that Mr. Harper has not done?” Dion started to answer the question, but then asked to start again because it was not clear to him whether Murphy meant if Dion had been prime minister for the last two years or if he were elected prime minister five days later in the general election. Murphy agreed to start again, but he did not clarify the confusing question. He simply re-asked it in more or less the same terms as the first instance. After two more restarts, the full uninterrupted interview followed. During it, Mr. Dion provided information about the Liberal economic plan, the proposed carbon tax, deficits, the green shift, taxes, comparable European national policies, and Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan.

In his introduction to the news item, Murphy informed viewers that CTV News had originally told the Liberals that the false starts would not be broadcast, but that it had changed its mind, later deciding that the public had the right to see the entire exchange. The false starts were also shown on Mike Duffy Live Prime Time, where they were followed by discussions with politician panellists and journalists about the reasons for the restarts and how they might affect the campaign.

The broadcast of the false starts generated numerous complaints from Canadians across the country. In general, complainants asserted that Murphy’s question had been awkwardly worded and that it was understandable that Dion had had comprehension difficulties, particularly since English was his second language. They felt it was unfair that CTV had aired the restarts, especially since it had originally told Dion it would not. CTV defended its decision to air the outtakes by arguing that it was important for voters to see how Dion handled himself in such situations.

The CBSC’s Atlantic Regional Panel examined the CTV Atlantic broadcast, while the National Specialty Services Panel adjudicated the Mike Duffy Live broadcast. The Atlantic Panel reviewed the complaints under the provisions of the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics and CAB Code of Ethics relating to accuracy and fairness, as well as an article of the RTNDA Code that requires journalists to treat people with decency and courtesy. The Panel observed that the phrasing of Murphy’s question was “confusing, and not only to a person whose first language is other than English. In the strictest grammatical sense, Steve Murphy’s question mixes not only tenses (present and past), but also moods (subjunctive and indicative),” so “blame for misapprehension cannot simply be laid at the feet of the interviewee.”

The Atlantic Panel also concluded that the broadcast breached Article 8 of the RTNDA Code because CTV had committed to not air the false starts and its decision to override that commitment was

discourteous and inconsiderate [...]. The Panel (two-thirds of the industry Adjudicators being themselves members of RTNDA and broadcast journalists of considerable experience) considers that restarts and retakes are a common, not a rare, occurrence. The decision to extend such a courtesy was neither unreasonable nor even unusual. The Panel considers that this courtesy was the moreso justified in light of the poorly framed question.

With respect to the Mike Duffy Live Prime Time broadcast, the majority of the National Specialty Services Panel shared the view of the Atlantic Panel about the poorly-worded question and concluded that the rebroadcast of false starts on the Duffy program was unfair and contrary to Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics. The majority also found that Mike Duffy’s repeated misrepresentation of Liberal M.P. Geoff Regan’s views on the matter constituted a breach of that same clause. The Panel’s views of the pertinent issues was that

the Liberal leader and his team had every reason to expect that the restarted matter was, in effect, “overwritten” or banished from use. The Panel considers this the moreso reasonable in light of the imprecision of the question and the confusion resulting from the failure of the interviewer to ever render what he sought clear. Had the question been articulate and well-framed, the Panel might have expected the Liberal leader to wear some responsibility for the confusion that ensued. That was not, however, the case. Even had the question been properly put, though, the broadcaster’s commitment to permit the restarts would likely have put the filmed content off-limits. In the circumstances, the question was bad and the commitment was made. The Panel views the broadcaster’s actions in the rebroadcast of the outtakes on the Duffy show as an unfair and improper presentation of news, opinion, comment and editorial

Two adjudicators dissented. They stated that the broadcast of Dion’s outtakes was newsworthy and that Duffy’s misrepresentation of M.P. Regan’s thoughts was adequately clarified within the program by that individual himself.

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, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic ethics created by the RTNDA – Association of Electronic Journalists in 1970. More than 720 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