Offensive language

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

This review arises from the use of language that offended a listener of CBC Radio. I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices, although I noted the importance of exercising restraint in broadcast.

On the October 2, 2011, edition of The Strombo Show on CBC Radio 2, host George Stroumboulopoulos was discussing his recent changes in diet, what he called his “veganish” endeavour.

He said he was particularly against dairy products and had taken criticism for his stand, including some personal comments online from those who eat meat.

“Those angry meat people. Jesus Christ,” Stroumboulopoulos said, before talking more about his dietary changes and adding that some people get “pissy” about his position on the issue.

The complainant, Rolf van Driesum, wrote October 15 to say the use of the term “Jesus Christ” in this way was a profanity, in contempt, and highly offensive to him and “hundreds of thousands of Canadian believers.”

Van Driesum said the use of the term in this way was “rooted in ignorance of faith, history, theology, and philosophy. Should the remark be a result of careless use of language, that is completely unacceptable and there should be consequences. However I believe this use of profanity was intentional, to profile the host as a rebel, anti-authoritarian in order to appeal to a younger audience.”

Mark Steinmetz, the director of CBC Radio Music, wrote back October 24 to say Stroumboulopoulos was responding in disbelief to what he had read on a website.

“He is sorry his comment has offended you. Even though there is a warning at the top of the show (that some listeners might find the language offensive), and even though George's style is more freewheeling than most, I have spoken to him about being more aware of the sensibilities of his audience,” Steinmetz wrote.

Later that day, van Driesum wrote back to say there had been other instances in which there had been a “careless use of the Lord's name by the CBC” and its program hosts, something he felt reflected “an agenda to undercut the Church and Christian believers.”

He added: “I put it to you that should any of the hosts have inadvertently profaned the name of Allah or Mohammed in their comments, the conversation would not have made it to air.” He asserted there likely were a thousand such instances involving Jesus and none involving others.

He wanted an on-air apology and a commitment that it was not CBC policy to use the name of Jesus as a profanity. Steinmetz wrote again November 25 to express regret, that there was no intent to offend, and note the matter had been discussed with program hosts.

Van Driesum asked for a further response and Steinmetz wrote December 9 to say that, while “I sincerely regret you were offended,” there was nothing to add. Van Driesum then wrote to express concern that dialogue ceases at certain points in disputes.

A series of correspondences between van Driesum and this Office ensued in order to determine if he would seek a review of the matter.

Van Driesum wrote this Office December 19 to say he had concluded the use of the name Jesus as a profanity was “intentional and rooted in malice” and that the pattern of response from CBC reflected a policy that curtailed dialogue.

“What is left unsaid by the CBC is that while they regret someone is offended, they are not prepared to do anything about what caused the offence, and in fact they are quite prepared to do so again.”

Van Driesum wrote December 26 to say it was his position that “the CBC is reserving the right to profane the name of Jesus,” that it has made no commitment to cease the practice, and that it minimizes the seriousness of the offence.

“The response that I expected from the CBC would have contained the following points: Restatement of core CBC values of inclusion and tolerance. The CBC's apology for any offence they may have caused. The CBC's recognition that the name of Jesus is precious to many around the world, and that in no way would the CBC want to cause offence to followers of Jesus. The CBC's recognition that many Christian believers are also their fans and supporters. The CBC's commitment that they are enshrining in their policy and procedures that this will not happen again.”

He added: “I am a bit baffled that the CBC, in all its wisdom, does not seem to recognize, or want to recognize, the offence it causes to many, and its unwillingness to make this right. There is something amiss within the corporate culture.” In further correspondence January 20, 2012, van Driesum asked for a review. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices state: “All Canadians, of whatever origins, perspectives and beliefs, should feel that our news and current affairs coverage is relevant to them and lives up to our Values.”

On the use of language, the policy says in part: “We respect and reflect the generally accepted values of society. We are aware that the audiences we address do not all have the same definition of good taste. 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.”

t adds: “We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt.”

But it also notes: “To describe certain realities or report adequately on certain situations, it is sometimes necessary to use expressions or quotations that may be shocking to part of the audience. In these circumstances, we limit ourselves to what is necessary for understanding, we attribute the statements where applicable and we take care to present them in proper context.”

On the matter of respect and the absence of prejudice, the policy notes: “We ensure that, taking into account the context in which the words are published, they are not likely to expose anyone to hatred or contempt on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or physical or mental disability.”

The policy says CBC respects “the audience's degree of tolerance, with due regard for society's generally shared values.”

It adds: “When we find it necessary to use words that could shock part of the public, we give a clear audience advisory.”

Conclusion

I do not share the complainant's view that there is a policy condoning profanity in CBC programming, but I take the point that the policy avoiding gratuitous graphic language isn't always effective in preventing it.

At times in media there is an unconscious offence of segments of the audience owing to a casual drift in the evolution of language or a faulty assumption about shared standards.

Terms some continue to consider problematic are in other places treated lightly. A public broadcaster, in particular, should be careful not to assume its values are necessarily those of its audience or to discount concerns that might through one's own lens seem anachronistic.

Complicating the situation are extensive live and live-to-tape programs that can veer into unscripted and colloquial passages, which is what appeared to happen in this instance. Some lenience is due the occasional blurt, but no host can be exempt from policy just because he or she is an inherently expansive or freeform presence.

A public broadcaster is expected to adhere to the highest standards and I take note of the responsible effort in CBC policy for news and information content to avoid expressions giving rise to offence. The policy serves as part of good governance of the situation that includes a culture of reflection when complaints surface.

CBC precedes this program and some others with an audience advisory indicating that some might find elements objectionable. That can be helpful if someone wants to avoid at all costs such content. (This is actually a stronger policy than the Broadcasting Act, which only asks programmers to take measures when “a significant segment of the audience might reasonably be expected to be disturbed or offended.”)

But I consider that these language advisories are designed to alert audiences to the “necessary” use of words some might find objectionable, presumably in the context of unfettered artistic expression, and that they are not meant to serve as a carte blanche for less necessary coarse talk.

I concluded in listening repeatedly to the program segment that the host spoke out of exasperation and frustration, not with malice to deprive the term of its value or meaning. It is important to note that, in this instance, CBC discussed the complaint and the host acknowledged and understood it. I believe this was a responsible way to respond and an indication of a lesson taken to heart by a conscientious broadcaster with a track record of commitment in the wider world.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman