The recently-announced decision of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) to censure some comments made by Rev. Charles McVety on his program Word TV (carried as a paid program on CTS) raises some challenging questions about the role of the voluntary body in regulating the content of broadcast material in Canada. The show was temporarily withdrawn by CTS as a result of the decision, and now will be pre-screened.

Some of McVety’s statements over an eight-month period were found to be in violation of the CBSC’s guidelines on equitable portrayals. The complaints discussed in the decision were brought by a single household, and cover a wide range of topics such as homosexuality, school curriculum and sex education, the annual Pride parade in Toronto, euthanasia, Islam and the earthquake in Haiti.

The League cannot provide detailed comments on the allegations, as the programs could not be screened in their context.  It should be noted that the CBSC dismissed many of the complaints.  However, the CBSC upheld certain complaints against some commentary involving homosexuality, including comments about Toronto’s Pride parade and the recent track record of human rights tribunal’s decisions. (See full text of decision here.)

Given that the Pride parade and the human rights tribunals’ handling of religious and free speech cases are of concern to many people, it’s at least arguable that the principle of free speech or fair comment on matters of public interest may have been overrun by political correctness in upholding those complaints.  

Our focus in this commentary is that the CBSC has failed to satisfy our previous concerns on its heightened enforcement of certain commentators, while regularly dismissing complaints of Catholic and other Christian concerns.

The League has filed a number of complaints with the CBSC over the years, and our members have filed many more as individuals. If the agency has ever ruled that portrayals of Catholics were in breach of its codes, we are not aware of it. (This includes “comedic” skits about priests and pedophilia, sick jokes about the Virgin Birth at Christmastime, a Jesus look-alike contest to celebrate Easter, and obscenity during family viewing hours.) A particular instance of some note was a decision in 2000 to censor Dr. Laura Schlessinger for having made “abusively discriminatory” references to homosexual issues, behavioural issues, and academic studies involving homosexuality on her syndicated radio programs.

CBSC panels do their work in relative obscurity.  The CRTC has referred complainants to the CBSC, and has made reference to its decisions in subsequent CRTC decisions.  However, the CBSC has been criticized in the past for failing to announce publicly any prospective hearings, and does not provide for intervenor status. Complaints filed over different programs and processed by differently-composed panels have resulted in single decisions, which we presume have been largely written by its long time National Chair Ronald Cohen, who is not answerable to the CRTC or any government oversight.  In the McVety case, in keeping with CBSC custom, it appears that neither CBSC or CTS informed Dr. McVety of the complaints.  There is no appeal of the work of the CBSC, whose decisions appear to be enforced by broadcasters, despite the public nature of Canada’s airwaves.

It has long been our view that the mandate of the CBSC, and the lack of forceful oversight by the CRTC, result in a process which is procedurally inept. Since only the CRTC has the authority to revoke a broadcasting license, why are serious complaints not being heard by them? Viewers and advertisers already have the ability to take their business elsewhere if a broadcast outlet fails to reflect appropriate values and standards. As an industry body, the CBSC may have strong educational value, but it is not a government body and as such has no real regulatory power. The League has said for years that any content regulation that needs to be done – and presumably that would be minimal in a democracy – should stay with the CRTC.  The CRTC proposed a review of its relationship with the CBSC, dating back to the 1990’s (e.g. CRTC Public Notice 1991-90), but any such review has either never happened or never been made public.

If the CBSC wishes to command respect for its work, it should abide by general observations of due process, and allow a meaningful opportunity for content providers to respond within the process of its dealings.  Moreover, the CRTC should be prepared to justify how this organization has been allowed to engage in content oversight for the past 20 years.

League submission to CRTC Review of New Media in Canada.

– Catholic Civil Rights League, December 17, 2010.