Disrespectful language

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Use of the term “Indian giver”

I am writing with regard to your complaint December 6, 2010, and request January 5, 2011, for a review by this Office about remarks October 4, 2010, on the CBC News Network program, The Lang & O'Leary Exchange. Thank you for your patience in this matter.


On its October 4, 2010, program, The Lang & O'Leary Exchange discussed a Conference Board of Canada report on the financial implications for Saskatchewan of the proposed takeover of its Crown corporation, PotashCorp, by Australian-based BHP Billiton.

The report indicated the province stood to lose about $2 billion in revenue over the next decade. The losses in royalties and taxes could be even higher if a new owner were to adopt a strategy of increased production, the board said.

Kevin O'Leary, the business commentator and co-host of the program, asserted that the report was not to be trusted. He said the private sector should be examining the deal instead of the government commissioning a report on a government deal.

Co-host Amanda Lang asserted that the conference board was credible and independent and that it was the province's obligation to examine if its citizens would benefit from the takeover.

O'Leary indicated Lang should stand up for shareholders who invested in PotashCorp on the expectation there would be a payoff. He said she was suggesting it was “unCanadian” to make a profit.

Lang said it was important to weigh the shareholders' interests against the interests of those who live in the province and benefit from the royalties. She said there were likely some in the province who felt it should never stop being a Crown corporation.

At that point, O'Leary said: “You know, you are an Indian giver with a forked tongue. You sold these rights to somebody who paid hard cash for them. Now you don't like it anymore.”

Lang replied: “Is there any other kind of backward example or statement phrase you want to use? Because that came from the 19th century, and I do not approve.”

O'Leary then said: “And you know what? It's appropriate today to say that because what you're suggesting is that you sold these rights for cash to shareholders who took risks and now you want it back. Shame on you.”

Lang then ended the discussion to shift to an interview on the report with Saskatchewan Energy and Resource Minister Bill Boyd.

The complainant, Alex Jamieson, wrote December 6, 2010, that O'Leary's comments were offensive and “archaic.” He expressed surprise that no one had complained. He further wrote December 10 that, as an aboriginal person, he took offence at the statement and with the fact it had not been addressed through an apology or an attempt at reconciliation. He said he took great offence at having to convince CBC that appropriate measures hadn't been taken.

“For CBC to allow that perception to stay in the minds of the viewers by not condemning his actions, as a public corporation, and allow O'Leary to continue on in this role as commentator without having received apparent punishment or having issued a public apology himself, I believe, is the more heinous of the two offences.”

On December 8, 2010, the program's executive producer, Robert Lack, wrote Jamieson to say he shared the view that the term “Indian giver” was offensive.

“You are not alone,” Lack wrote. “I can assure you that the use of such disparaging language is entirely inappropriate.”

Lack said he would not defend O'Leary — “what he said is indefensible” — but explained he had been “engaged in a heated discussion” with Lang and defending the rights of private shareholders. Lack noted that Lang stopped the discussion and rebuked O'Leary clearly and directly.

Lack wrote that O'Leary, who appears on the program unrehearsed and unscripted, is a knowledgeable businessman with “sharp, provocative and sometimes idiosyncratic views."

He added: “In this instance, however, his remarks were inappropriate. Subsequent to the broadcast, we discussed the matter and I am confident he now understands just how offensive such language is. It has no place on our program. For the fact you heard it, I offer my sincere apologies.”

On December 12, Jamieson wrote back: “What about this idea. . . I appear on an upcoming CBC show with Kevin O'Leary and describe feelings when comments of that nature are made . . .And then I get a job at CBC.”

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy intersects with the complaint in several ways.

In broad outline, the policies uphold diversity, independence, responsibility, accountability and the values of accuracy, fairness and balance. There are particular elements of the policies that apply to these circumstances.

On general language use and taste, it states: “We choose a tone that will not gratuitously offend audience sensitivities. In particular we avoid swearing and coarse, vulgar, offensive or violent language except where its omission would alter the nature and meaning of the information reported.”

On the issue of respect and absence of prejudice, it states: “We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived.” It adds later: “We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt.”

On the quality and precision of language use: “The use of certain highly charged words can undermine credibility and merits special consideration. Language is constantly evolving. We will be attentive to shifts in the meaning of words. We consult language resources and editorial management as needed to grasp the impact of expressions that are open to multiple interpretations and capable of offending some audience members.”

Conclusion

The remarks were unambiguously offensive, disrespectful, and out of keeping with the values CBC has worked for decades to espouse and fortify.

The term “Indian giver” has its origins in European settlers mistaking native American goods for trade as gifts (natives had no other form of currency than goods). More than a century ago it acquired an offensive connotation to describe someone who took something back

Inasmuch as it is elemental to cite a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices, a review of this sort does not come without its challenges. There are jurisdictional, mandate and managerial issues to navigate.

The mandate of the CBC Ombudsman generally applies to CBC staff journalists and programmers. O'Leary is neither a CBC staff employee nor a journalist. He is a contracted commentator who runs an investment business. Separate corporate policies more specifically apply to contracted employees.

The Lang & O'Leary Exchange provides a disclaimer at the end of the program that says, in part: “The views of Kevin O'Leary are his alone and do not represent the views of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.” But this disclaimer shouldn't be a catch-all.

The mandate of the Ombudsman has to attend to such remarks within news and information programming, no matter who commits them.

Apart from any review of O'Leary's remarks, a review also needs to focus on the conduct of CBC. In short: did it react to O'Leary's remarks congruent with CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices?

I concluded Lang did a commendable job by instantly responding. Whatever route was planned for the discussion on the report ceased with his remarks. Live television is a challenging environment in which to keep focused. Presenters can miss or mishandle significant matters. But Lang dealt with the comments critically and nimbly. The provincial minister was in the wings for an interview and, as a result, the problematic situation didn't worsen.

But Lang should not be O'Leary's handler. Public accountability for the remarks rests principally with him and ultimately with CBC management.

There was a similar situation in recent months involving a regular commentator on a CBC News Network program who made harsh remarks about the co-founder of WikiLeaks. Like O'Leary, the commentator didn't immediately apologize for his remarks (indeed, like O'Leary, he stood by them initially), even though the host immediately and similarly reproached him. But he reflected on the matter overnight and by the next day was contrite. He apologized on the next available program the following night. The host reiterated his criticism of the remarks, as well. There was limited hesitation in the approach and limited damage to the program's reputation. The program did what it could to quell the matter, even though it is always difficult to undo public remarks.

In this instance, the preferred course would have been for O'Leary not only to privately recognize the fault of his ways but to publicly express remorse, either that night or the next night or soon after. But if he wasn't going to publicly apologize, the program could have done something further to make amends. Its obligation goes beyond the complainant to the viewers in order to uphold the broader reputation of the program and CBC itself.

It was good but insufficient for Lang to rebuke O'Leary, for management to discuss the matter with him, for him to understand his offence, and for CBC News to agree with the complainant. Still, there remains an obligation to the public.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman