The Business of Porn.

The complainant, Christopher Gillespie, thought a four-part series on Day 6 entitled “Porn-o-nomics” made a serious error of bias by focusing on pornography as a legitimate business and failing to address the impact and harm it can do. He noted the absence of critics and the preponderance of advocates. The series was narrowly focused on the economic drivers behind the business and the impact that has on how people are treated and what is seen. It is not a violation of policy to limit the focus on a controversial issue, but the series might have better acknowledged the bigger picture.

COMPLAINT

You thought a series on the economics of the pornography industry that aired on CBC Radio One’s Day 6 programme showed a “lack of critical thinking.” You noted all the experts who were interviewed supported the industry and provided no criticism. You added the entire series should have been labelled “sponsored content for the industry.” You faulted the producers for failing to address the broader issues arising out of the production and consumption of online porn. You noted that you had contacted the show directly after the first episode of the four-part series, urging them to add some critical voices. You cited the use of Shira Tarrant, whose position is that pornography should be treated as legitimate. You added that only ‘pro-pornography’ feminists were heard from, but that there are many who oppose it. You heard no other perspective articulated in the next three installments:

To have a guest that argues that pornography is legitimate without someone to counter that position is taking sides. You presented the issue exactly the way the big money that runs the industry wanted you to. Indeed, your show is being used on behalf of a larger industry media campaign to capture more revenue from the internet.

You were critical of the premise of the coverage that the pornography industry should be treated as any other in order to take a critical look at it. You also disagreed with one of the people interviewed who believed that it was difficult to do so because of discomfort with sexuality. You quoted a critic of pornography, Robert Jensen, to make the point:

People routinely assume that pornography is such a difficult and divisive issue because it’s about sex. In fact, this culture struggles unsuccessfully with pornography because it is about men’s cruelty to women, and the pleasure men sometimes take in that cruelty. And that is much more difficult for people—men and women—to face.

You said the series violated CBC journalistic policy because it did not present a range of views on a matter of public controversy. Its starting premise was that this was an industry like any other and therefore it was worthwhile to examine its business model and the economic pressures it faces.

For the Day 6 program, the establishment of the pornography industry as legitimate was crucial for the rest of the Porn-o-nomics series. Day 6 has implicitly acknowledged as much on their web site by having not one quote from Ms. Tarrant that the industry is legitimate but two. Pornography had to be established as legitimate otherwise the uncritical parade of pornographers, porn stars, and industry lobbyists that followed Ms. Tarrant would not be considered acceptable. Indeed, the other aspect of the story that Mr. Westmacott felt was “under-examined” and “under-appreciated” was the perspective of the pornography industry. Had Day 6 acknowledged the controversy regarding pornography, had they included anti-pornography critics on their program, they would have had to debate the social effects of ubiquitous internet pornography and indeed whether the industry itself was legitimate? And any sense that there was debate over the legitimacy of the pornography industry would have put a cloud over what Day 6 was trying accomplish in Porn-o-nomics - having a fun, uncritical, porn friendly, series.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Gord Westmacott, the Senior Producer of Day 6, responded to your initial complaint which you sent directly to the programme. He began by explaining the intent and editorial purpose of the series. He told you that the intent was to “examine what’s there, instead of debating whether it should be there.” The idea was to openly examine a multi billion-dollar industry but that did not mean the producers were not mindful of the fact that there are important issues about the impact of such readily available online content. He added: “We're trying to avoid glorifying it, but we're also trying to avoid moralizing about the idea of pornography itself.”

The focus was a narrow one. He told me in a subsequent conversation that Day 6 has a mandate to examine issues from unique angles. The important and valid debate about social harm and the impact of pornography are the more common discussions, so the programmers decided to look at a less well-known aspect of the business - how it runs and how that influences what is seen and what is delivered.

He also addressed your concern about the use of Shira Tarrant, who took the position that people should treat pornography as a legitimate business. He believed the point she was making was that she wanted people to bring the same critical thinking to an examination of the industry that they bring to others. He thought there was value to looking at the industry as it exists. He did not believe that legitimized it but rather helped people understand a multi-billion dollar industry, whose product is widely consumed.

We decided to focus on the economic forces at work in this industry because we feel it's an underexamined aspect of the larger conversation about online pornography. We also feel -- as Shira Tarrant said -- that if we want to have an effective conversation about the social effects of free, instantly available pornography, we need to understand the industry that generates it. That's what we hope to contribute to the larger conversation about pornography. In doing so, we are being careful to avoid being gratuitous or titillating, so as not to glorify the industry. We've already addressed several problems in the industry and we'll be addressing more. But we are also trying to be open and candid about the fact that this is a multi-Billion-dollar industry that many people are choosing to consume.

REVIEW

There are few subjects more fraught or controversial than pornography. There are a host of issues it raises - the easy accessibility for young people, addiction, violence, racism, the treatment of those who create it - just to name a few. You are correct when you point out CBC Journalistic policy addresses the need for balance when it comes to matters of controversy:

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

Your concern in the case of this four-part series was that by failing to address the issues and controversy surrounding pornography, it was, in fact, taking sides. The framing of this series and its purpose was to examine the industry so that listeners would have an understanding of its scope, its operation and how its challenges affected the people within the industry and to an extent how and what consumers of pornography see. Some of the larger social issues are implicitly in the background and the host, Brent Bambury, lays out the limitations of the discussion in the opening and in subsequent segments:

BRENT BAMBURY

The on-line adult entertainment industry is so vast that researchers have a hard time estimating its size, but they do agree on this – porn is everywhere. It’s in people’s mobile phones, laptops, hard disks and, of course, on the internet. But despite the available, the ubiquity, despite the thousands of free clips are just a click away, the multi-billion dollar industry is in upheaval. Talking about online porn, and understanding the consequences of it, means having complicated conversations about something we don’t totally understand...Over the next few weeks we are going to look at the economic forces driving this industry, who’s making money, how much that’s changed, and why the current model may not be sustainable for much longer. So, what happens next? In Episode 1 we break down how the industry works and we look at one of the biggest players in the game.

It might have been more explicit, but the underlying reason for the series was to examine how the changing business model influenced conditions for the health and safety of the performers and the impact on the consumption. Mr. Bambury emphasized the ubiquity and ease of access. The fact that there is so much free access clearly has an impact on who can see the material, including young people. One of the principle people interviewed in the first part of the series, Shira Tarrant - whom you characterized as a spokesperson for the industry - listed her concerns. Some of them were broader economic ones, but some of them did address the impact:

SHIRA TARRANT

There are no many reasons to care about this state of this industry, because, as I see it, pornography is a lightning rod for things that all already happening in our culture, so we are already concerned about copyright, we’re already concerned about first amendment's issues, we’re concerned about sexual safety, sexual pleasure, sexual consent, we’re concerned about monopoly, we’re concerned about free markets. If we care about these sorts of issues, then we also need to engage with this global multi-billion dollar-a-year industry and see it as legitimate and understand what’s happening in this industry, otherwise it operates as a sort of an unexamined or underexamined industry.

It is true that in highly controversial matters there is an expectation that a range of views will be presented, but it is also editorially acceptable to narrow the scope and discussion of a broad and controversial subject.

There is another CBC journalistic policy that pertains here as well. It says this about fairness:

In our information gathering and reporting, we treat individuals and organizations with openness and respect. We are mindful of their rights. We treat them even-handedly.

The programmers put aside the moral judgement of whether this is a “legitimate business” in order to examine how the business model has an impact on those who participate in the creation of material, as well as those who consume it. It is logical in this context to talk to people who have knowledge of the industry and understand the impact of the changes. The subsequent three parts of the series looked at some of the adaptations in production and consumption and what impact that might have on the industry. In each case it was clear the focus was narrow, but there was some reference to some of the potential harms. You characterized the tone as “fun” - I did not hear it as that. I think in making a conscious choice to examine pornography in the context of economics and business, there was an effort to stay away from any line of questioning or acknowledgment of the many views of the harm pornography can cause. It might have been more effective at various points to acknowledge more explicitly what was being left out to remind listeners of the reason to examine the subject in this particular way. If the premise is that it is important to understand the economics of the pornography industry to better understand its effects, then mentioning what some of them are might have strengthened the understanding of it.

You pointed to other CBC programmes that did take on the broader questions of the impact on young people and the morality of pornography, including an Ideas programme, entitled “Generation Porn”. There are also a significant number of stories dealing with a range of issues - from the results of a youth survey entitled Sexuality and Romantic Relationships in the Digital Age,” to ongoing coverage of research of the effect of viewing pornography on youth and the population in general. The Day 6 piece was one part of a larger and ongoing examination of an important social issue. It defined its terms, but was not obliged to examine all issues.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman