Question for regulators: Can Sun News Network be trusted to keep inconvenient agreements?

Promises, promises: It’s not a musical, and it’s not funny. What confidence can Canadian broadcast regulators have that Sun News Network will abide by the agreements it makes? Below: Broadcaster Ezra Levant.

Whatever one may think of the value of obscenity to public discourse, the debate over the use on the air of an obscene Spanish phrase by Sun News Network commentator Ezra Levant established an unrelated but important fact about the broadcaster that employs him.

Sun News Network cannot be depended on to keep all its agreements.

This is an important consideration for Canadian broadcast regulators because Sun News Network is sure to be back at the well seeking improvements, extensions and changes to its licence.

As is normally the case in such matters, as the steward of a resource owned by all Canadians, the Canadian government or its agency the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission may ask Sun News Network for certain undertakings in return for the privileges it wishes granted. This is, after all, the nature of negotiating an agreement.

But as we can clearly see from Sun News Network’s pivotal role in the “Chinga Tu Madre Affair” – which is about more than merely a childish outburst by a foul-mouthed broadcaster – undertakings of this nature don’t appear to mean much to Sun News Network.

This should concern the CRTC, and it will certainly be of interest to Canadians opposed to any future Sun News Network applications for whatever reasons – be they other broadcasters, opponents of the company’s highly biased far-right “news” coverage or even wild-eyed radicals bent on “censoring” Mr. Levant’s desire to inappropriately criticize people he disagrees with under cover of the Canadian Constitution.

It will also be of interest to garden variety Members of Parliament, including many Conservatives, who presumably unlike Mr. Levant’s close friends at the heart of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s inner circle, share their constituents’ attitudes about the kind of discourse that is appropriate on Canadian public broadcasts.

Sun News Network itself appears to have been essentially silent on this matter, ceding the ground to Mr. Levant as its employee and de facto spokesperson.

For his part, Mr. Levant dealt with this question in one of his broadcasts and his conclusions are not promising from the point of view of a regulator or a government that wishes assurances agreements it makes with private corporations will be honoured.

As is well known by those who have been following this imbroglio, on June 13 a broadcast industry self-regulation agency called the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruled against Sun News Network for Mr. Levant’s use of an obscenity in what the CBSC referred to an on-air “tirade” in December 2011.

Mr. Levant responded the same day by reading the required CBSC statement rolled into a bombastic and immature attack on virtually everyone publicly identified as being involved in the complaint or the CBSC ruling. He closed the episode of his program by repeating the phrase originally complained of.

During his long polemic, Mr. Levant stated of the CBSC:

“On paper, they’re a private voluntary club. No TV or radio stations have to join them or submit to them. That’s the theory. But in practice, they do have the power of the state behind them, because in order to get a license, a TV license, from the Government of Canada, we’re required to join this ‘voluntary’ organization. Paragraph 6 of our TV license requires it. Talk about Orwellian. Did you get that? It’s a ‘voluntary’ organization. You’re forced to join by the government. …” (Emphasis added.)

In other words, by the sound of it, Sun News Network regretted the agreement it had made, and therefore decided simply to ignore it.

Well, they wouldn’t be the first to do something like that, would they? This is a bit like someone saying: “…in order to get a license, a marriage license, from a government in Canada, you’re required to join this ‘voluntary’ partnership!” Yes indeed, talk about Orwellian! And how inconvenient!

Returning to Mr. Levant, in the background of the TV station’s news set as he carried on a passage from a document appeared. It read: “The commission notes that the applicant stated that it would accept the standard conditions of licence for competitive mainstream national news services set out in Broadcasting Regulatory Policy 2009-562-1 including the conditions requiring a licensee to adhere to various industry codes relating to broadcast standards. The commission also notes that the applicant will be subject to various industry codes, including the RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics and the Journalistic Independence Code, as a member of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.”

So there you go. As Mr. Levant himself conceded, Sun News Network agreed with the CRTC that it would abide by certain conditions in order to get its licence, then ignored those conditions when it became inconvenient.

Doubtless every one of us has made a deal that, upon consideration, we wish we hadn’t. But honour, if not contract law, requires us to abide by these agreements.

Buy something you don’t like? You still have to pay. Marry someone you regret? You still ought to behave yourself, at least until the divorce. Sign a collective agreement you can’t stand? You nevertheless must live with the management-rights clause.

And thus do broadcasters sometimes agree to live by rules of conduct they may wish they didn’t have to in order to get their license. Saw offs are how deals get done – you give up a little, I give up a little and we both get a bargain we can live with. That’s why it’s called bargaining.

Society’s view of people who don’t keep their bargains is a low one, and rightfully so. It’s all about integrity.

What confidence can Canadians now have that Sun News Network will abide by the agreements it makes?

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

5 Comments on "Question for regulators: Can Sun News Network be trusted to keep inconvenient agreements?"

  1. CuJoYYC says:

    “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” from Macbeth.

    “Foul spoken coward, that thund’rest with thy tongue, and with thy weapon nothing dares perform.” from Titus Andronicus.

    “I’ll beat thee, but I should infect my hands.” from Timon of Athens.

    “Four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one: so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse; for it is all the wealth that he hath left, to be known a reasonable creature.” from Much Ado About Nothing

    Now I ask you, why would these Shakespearean quotes leap to mind when thinking of poor, long-suffering little Ezra?

  2. Karla Sofen says:

    All attempts to censor Ezra empower his argument. Come up with a better idea or stronger argument. Personal attacks and appeals to ridicule also empower him. The remedy for violating the agreement isn’t censorship or putting Sun News out of business. You don’t have a point other than you disagree with Ezra and can’t think of a legitimate way to express your own point of view. The remedy is more speech not censorship and let the audience turnthe channel.

    • Carlos Beca says:

      I am not sure what you mean by censor Ezra. We live in a society with rules, ethics and behaviours that are set by the society itself. Democracy and freedom of speech does not mean the law of the jungle and no respect for others. Ezra is behaving like an idiot and as such we have the right to complain about it. It has nothing to do with censorship.

      So you do not think that David has a point and you also believe he cannot express his point of view. Well it seems that 99% of people seem to clearly understand his point and I am one of them.

      As far as your remedy, it seems to make a lot of sense but you know as well as I do that it does not simply work that way, that is why we have the CRTC and other bodies. Ezra is in a huge advantage in this case and he has no problem using that advantage.

      I applaud David for taking him on and I for one am totally behind him.

      Carlos

      • Karla Sofen says:

        The blogger’s point about an agreement being binding is valid, but a legally enforcable agreement must be binding on BOTH sides. It is perfectly legal to enter into an agreement where one side has a subjective “satisfaction” clause, but CBSC must exercise that clause objectively. This is called the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Since the CBSC allows unbalanced reporting of many issues, especially about conservatives and Stephen Harper and allows much more flagrant and objectively more offensive swear words, it’s hard to justify that they are exercising their subjective judgment objectively. Ezra and Sun News HAVE lived up to their agreement in exactly the same way other news organizations in Canada have: He offers the opportunity for the target of criticism to respond or comment. Just like CTV or Global might say, “Harper’s Office refused comment” is their complete attempt at balancing their coverage and such a statement is satisfactory for CBSC. It is clear that the agreement is being breeched by CBSC because they broke the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. They should have ruled objectively by saying that curse words are not prohibited in Canada and that Sun provided an opportunity to the target of criticism to appear on the show and respond to balance out the presentation. I notice that NO ONE has come forward in defence of Chiquita in any objective sense to “counter” the opinions Ezra expressed. If they did, I expect such comments valid or not would be debated openly. Clearly, Sun News and Ezra Levant in spite of the disagreement of the complainers did not violate the agreement in a literal and legal sense. The CBSC did violate their obligation in the same agreement to exercise their judgment objectively and in the same way for every broadcaster in Canada. The CBSC should, if they are to retain even a scintilla of credibility, re-evaluate their position objectively and amend their opinion. It’s going to upset many in the media, but it will save them from oblivion. Sorry, but David’s argument is not persuasive in any legal, factual, or logical sense. Ezra haters will disagree but they don’t have a legitimate case. No amount of belief establishes any fact. If a million people believe a stupid thing, it’s still a stupid thing. Ezra will concede to a legitimate argument. But you won’t beat him with invective, insults or trying to game the censors’ personal biases to win a debate point. It really is better to have all the ideas and opinions out there, even if you disagree. Disagreement tests your opinions and beliefs and makes them more valid if they survive the test. Surround yourself with people who disagree and you’ll improve yourself in every possible way. Ezra is changing Canada and the groupthink; bias confirmation affected main stream media is accomplishing nothing of value to our society. Above all think for yourself. Okay to disagree, but be legitimate about it. Once the insults fly, you’ll just be mocked and disregarded.

  3. Alex P says:

    The worst Ezra Levant can fear from our host here, or the commenters, is a few cutting remarks and a letter or two to the CRTC at renewal time. You can chew gum in church, but don’t scream censorship when the old lady sitting behind you pinches your ear hard and hisses, “Spit it out!”

    That leads to a bigger discussion on victimhood and why Sun News is casting themselves as the abused victim. Other networks can’t let their news operation interfere with their more profitable specialty channels and other media ventures. Sun News does not fear such a calamity. In fact, they crave the attention. Sun News demanded publicly the CRTC should make cable companies carry their feed, but the CRTC doesn’t make any provider do that. Ezra Levant screams obscenities on the air waves, and he’s the victim because somebody complained.

    “Stop hitting my fist with your face!” they cry.

Comment