The complainant, Steve Zradicka, objected to the use of the f-word in an interview with two of the women who accused Albert Schultz of sexual misconduct. He pointed out his two children were in the car with him and it was unacceptable to use foul language, and that the warning ahead of time was not specific enough. The word was used in the context of something Mr. Schultz allegedly said and was not gratuitous. The warning mentioned strong language and disturbing subject matter. There was no violation of policy. (WARNING, THE F-WORD IS USED IN THIS REVIEW).
You were offended by the use of the “f-word” during an episode of The Current. You were driving in the car with your children and heard it twice within a minute or so. You said there was no warning. The host of the programme, Anna-Maria Tremonti, stated there would be strong language used - but you questioned whether that covered swearing. You thought the inclusion of this language was a ratings-grab and a deliberate attempt to inflame a situation:
I believe that this is a tactic by CBC to whip up the passion of the listeners with a topic that plays on the hearts and emotions of radio listeners across the country while slipping in foul language like FUCK on national airwaves and not caring about the "regulations" or the "code of conduct" within CBC programs while "justifying" their actions of profanity on the national airwaves of Canada. What topic will they choose next that will "justify" and "warrant" the use of swearing and profanity for Canadians of all ages to hear???
You pointed out that this situation was even more unacceptable because your children were listening, and likely, many others were as well:
Needless to say I'm angry that my children had to hear the word FUCK while i listened to the radio this morning. It made me feel very uncomfortable and I thumb my nose at CBC for their lack of professionalism. It may be an old word to "thumb my nose" at CBC to show my displease to this broadcast but at least I’m not telling them to fuck off. We have an extensive list of words we can use in the English language to convey our message and the profanity I heard used this morning was blatant demagoguery and ignorant to the fact that most people don't want to hear that kind of language while tuned into the radio.
You think that it should be CBC policy and practice that “profanity within ANY topic on the airwaves will not be acceptable.”
The episode in question was an interview with two of the four women who had just filed a civil suit against Albert Schultz, the co-founding artistic director of Soulpepper Theatre. You said that none of these accusations had been proven in court and it was wrong to damage his reputation before the courts had ruled. Your primary concern was the use of the swear words.
Kathleen Goldhar, who was then Executive Producer of The Current, replied to your concerns. She told you she regretted your discomfort. She mentioned that it is general practice to avoid “coarse language” in radio broadcasts, but this was a case where it seemed justified to make an exception. She said the producers considered it “germane, even important” to the “integrity of the story.”
She pointed out that the entire interview with two of the women who had just filed statements of claim in court against Mr. Schultz was emotional and at times hard to listen to. They described a series of incidents in which they say Mr. Schultz acted inappropriately towards them. They were actually quoting what Mr. Schultz had said to them when they used the word. They said he was conducting what they described as an acting exercise out in the parking lot. They said he was asking if they wanted to have sex with him, and that was how he expressed it. Ms. Goldhar explained why the decision was made to leave it in, rather than edit it out:
...we discussed that possibility. But in the end, we decided to leave it in. The coarseness of the word Mr. Schultz used conveyed the crude nature of the request he was making. And for that reason we felt the word was an integral part of the event they described. To use a euphemism or to mask the word in some fashion we felt would impair the integrity and significance of the information in the story.
Once the decision was made to leave the interview intact, the team included a “prominent and specific warning” before the interview began about the subject matter and the language used. The warning was there so that those who wished to could mute or change stations, she explained. They considered it sufficient.
She also addressed your comments about the publishing of the story and the damage to Mr. Schultz’s reputation before any of the accusations have been proven in court. She told you:
An open, public and transparent legal system is one of the cornerstones of Canadian democracy. Writs, charges, arrests, proceedings, trials, convictions, judgements and sentences, all the aspects of our legal system – bar a few strictly circumscribed exceptions – are all public.
She pointed out that Ms. Tremonti reminded listeners at the beginning and end of the interview that none of the claims have been proven in court. The programmers also sought an interview with Mr. Schultz to respond to the accusations, which he declined. However, they did quote from his public release so that his response was also part of the record. She assured you the programme would continue to follow and report on developments in the case.
There are two CBC journalistic policies that are applicable in this case. One is Language Level and Good Taste:
We use the language of accessible, articulate everyday speech.
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.
It does not ban the use of vulgar language, but offers two things to consider - the accepted norms and values of society, and the value of the words in terms of understanding and conveying - not only the information involved, but its nature and meaning. In other words, programmers and journalists must use sound editorial judgment, bearing in mind the competing values and imperatives in the situation.
The second policy notes the need for warnings when strong or offensive language is used. Note this policy too invokes consideration of social norms:
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.
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. We refer to senior editorial management in case of doubt.
We respect the audience’s degree of tolerance, with due regard for society’s generally shared values.
When we find it necessary to use words that could shock part of the public, we give a clear audience advisory.
These policies were designed for situations exactly like the one encountered in this interview on The Current. One of the hardest things to assess in 2018 is what social norms and community standards are. If you live at all in the world of social media, you might conclude anything goes. While I appreciate your discomfort exposing your children to swearing, making the decision to leave it in this interview for editorial purposes given the overall culture does not seem like a radical conclusion. Radio is an intimate medium, so words have a large impact. It is also the hardest one to provide effective warnings, as there is always the possibility that listeners will not have heard the start of the interview. Having said that, news and current affairs are geared to adults, although the policy is mindful of children. It also will, by definition, sometimes offend some people. You questioned the motive and sincerity of the warning. I do not. I believe that there was a conversation that led programmers to a set of conclusions. You take issue with the warning. This is what Ms. Tremonti said at the outset, in the last part of her introduction:
In 2000 Kristin Booth and Patricia or Trish Fagan were recent theatre school graduates excited to land coveted spots in Soulpepper's young company and eager to start their careers under the tutelage of Albert Schultz. Both women are now suing Mr. Schultz and Soulpepper. I spoke with them yesterday afternoon. This is our conversation and I should warn you it deals with subject matter some people may find distressing and include some strong language.
It is an interesting suggestion to be more specific than “strong language” and instead to say swearing or profanity. Being as precise as possible is a good idea, but as Ms. Goldhar explained to you, the strong language and distressing subject matter is far broader than the use of an expletive. The programmers may have thought the entire interview was disturbing and distressful - because of its emotional nature and because of the things the women described happening to them - and some might consider that more upsetting, or at least equally upsetting, to the use of an expletive. Judging tolerance to language has to be done in the aggregate, even if it might upset some. The journalistic purpose in conveying the information was judged to outweigh the unfortunate possibility of upsetting some people. It is a hard call, but not one I would fault in this case.
If the women were just swearing, I would agree with you - it would have made sense to edit or beep it out. They were not. They were quoting something the man they say acted inappropriately said to them. It becomes an important journalistic consideration to convey the meaning and to reflect what had happened. Note that in clarifying who said it, Ms. Tremonti did not repeat it:
We had started rehearsing and we were in the parking lot with Albert and he suggested that we participate in an acting exercise and it was just the three of us. And that acting actor exercise was sort of outlaid to us as if we could convince him that by saying that we wanted to fuck various members of the male side of the company then we would be deemed convincing in our conviction in our commitment to our craft and to Soulpepper or the show. It seemed at the time very odd to me. I was uncomfortable with the connotation but at the same time Albert was my boss, Albert was my mentor. I'm not. I am not afraid to say that at that time I somewhat worshipped him. You know he made it very clear that he could either make or break my future career so.
And he used the "F" word to ask you which of the other company members?
Yes. It became clear to me quite quickly into this exercise that he was waiting for both Trish and I to say I would fuck Albert Schultz.
I do not find a violation of journalistic policy, nor can I recommend that swear words never be used in broadcasts. I can only emphasize the importance of consideration of the impact on the audience versus the potential to offend or upset some people. The nature of journalism is that this is an equation that is often needed and assessed.
You took issue with the airing of this interview at all since this has not been proven in a court of law. It is a challenge for journalists, especially now with the #metoo phenomenon, to make that call. As Ms. Goldhar pointed out to you, all of this information is in the public record. Mr. Schultz is a high profile figure in the Canadian arts community. It would be a dereliction of duty to avoid reporting the filing of the civil suit and the accusations. Caution and continuous coverage to update as more information is made available is critical. There is also an obligation to continue to report this story until its resolution.