Newfie Joke Part of Sitcom Not Abusively Discriminatory According to Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, July 22, 1998 -- The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning an episode of the situation comedy Ellen which aired on CJOH-TV on January 22, 1997. In that episode, one of the characters tries to sell “Newfie” jokes to a stand-up comedian. When these jokes fail to entertain at the comedy club, the joke-seller makes a desperate attempt to get people laughing and says “It’s so true. Those Newfies are so stupid...” A viewer complained that the program contained “derogatory references” regarding Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders and stated that “A program which characterizes any segment of society as ‘stupid’ is offensive and bigoted.”

The CBSC’s Ontario Regional Council considered the complaint under the ‘human rights’ provision of the Code of Ethics of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters. It recognized, as in previous decisions, that there is a distinction to be drawn between ethnic humour told in a comedic context and disparaging comments made about certain ethnic groups in a serious context. It reiterated that “...to amount to a breach of the human rights provision of the Code of Ethics, a comment must not merely be discriminatory, it must be abusively so.” The Council concluded that

the “Newfie joke” used in the program was clearly intended to demonstrate the ineptitude of the joke-teller. The Council also considers that the joke was for the most part harmless, if understandably offensive to some; however, the added comment by Joe (“Those Newfies are so stupid...”) could be understood as more directly provocative. When taken in context of the storyline and the buffoonish joketeller – Joe is clearly incompetent and engaged in an obviously desperate attempt to get some laughter from the audience in order to get paid for the joke which the audience does not seem to find interesting, much less amusing – the Council does not find that this comment was abusively discriminatory.

The Council noted that the producers of Ellen apologized for the episode stating that their “efforts to entertain were truly short-sighted” but stated that, while this may appear as an acknowledgment that the comments made regarding Newfoundlanders were inappropriate, it does not mean that the “short-sighted” comments amount to a breach of the Codes.

The Council also commented on the broadcaster’s response to the complainant, reminding the broadcaster that taking action “by forwarding a copy of your letter to the Canadian distributor, asking that it be passed along to the production company in the U.S.A.” may not always be sufficient to fulfil its responsibilities vis-à-vis complaints received regarding programming broadcast on its station.

Canada’s private broadcasters have created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, gender portrayal and television violence by which they expect their members will abide. They also created the CBSC, which is the self-regulatory body with the responsibility of administering those Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic practices created by the Radio Television News Directors Association Canada (RTNDA). More than 430 radio and 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 World Wide Web at www.cbsc.ca. For more information, please contact the National Chair of the CBSC, Ron Cohen, at (###) ###-####.