CBC Ombudsman finds no breach of standards
The talk radio peanut gallery seems to have its sights trained on John Furlong, host of the “Fisheries Broadcast” on CBC Radio.
Last week, I told you about Gus Etchegary, and his accusation that Furlong is “biased”.
This week, I get word that Dr. Philip Earle, another fixture on talk radio, filed a formal complaint with the CBC Ombudsman in Ontario.
If you listen to all three talk radio shows on VOCM, and the “Broadcast” on CBC, you will know Dr. Earle all too well. Between these programs, it seems his voice is on the air at least once a day. Dr. Earle was also a Liberal candidate in the 2011 provincial general election.
I will summarize the Ombudsman’s report here, but you can read the full decision here: http://www.cbc.ca/ombudsman/pdf/2011-12-06-Earle.pdf
This began on November 4, when Dr. Earle wrote to the local CBC, complaining that his calls to the “Fish Line” were not making it to air. He claimed the show was “censoring” his viewpoints, as well as the similar views of others, and that three of his phoned-in commentaries were never used.
By allegedly favouring the “commentary of one group over another,” Dr. Earle wrote, and projecting one viewpoint about the industry, the program had “lost its credibility and integrity.”
Tough talk, to be sure. And strong accusations. But the good doctor was not done. He also singled out a statement Furlong made, within the context of an interview. Here is what Furlong said:
“People call for an inquiry into the fishery,” Furlong said. “I mean, who cares what went wrong? The question is what do we do now with what we have left.”
Dr. Earle said these remarks were irresponsible and had a “serious negative influence” on impressionable listeners.
Marc Riddell, managing editor of news with CBC NL, replied to Dr. Earle on November 16. He explained that at least 15 of Dr. Earle’s calls had made it to air since January. Here’s an excerpt from the Ombudsman’s report:
Riddell said that in the recent provincial election campaign the program refrained from running his comments because he was a candidate for the Liberal Party. “We also felt that after the election your comments had a sameness to them and didn’t reflect the editorial direction of the show on those days.”
As for the November 2 comment by Furlong, Riddell said he crafted his statement on the basis of the three political parties all saying they “wanted an inquiry but saw no value in finger pointing about the past.” A review of that and other broadcasts indicated Furlong was not favouring one view over others on how to fix the many problems the fishery was facing, Riddell wrote.
Note the reference to the “sameness” of Dr. Earle’s comments. That’s the understatement of the year. There is a fairly standard formula to Dr. Earle’s calls. He will usually start with a description of how things were, when there were millions of tonnes of fish in the sea, and before the bad guys (ie everyone but us) raped the resource. Then, he will point the finger at various antagonists, such as foreign draggers or DFO in Ottawa, using phrases like “I have been told” and “I have reason to believe.” As he talks, Dr. Earle’s voice rises in anger, until he is practically spitting into the phone. Some members of the talk radio choir talk about Dr. Earle in reverential tones, calling him a “passionate” Newfoundlander, but I think he sounds ridiculous and have started switching the channel whenever he comes on. His rants used to be unintentionally funny – now they are just tiresome and predictable.
It is difficult to summarize the decision of Kirk LaPointe, the CBC Ombudsman, without sacrificing any of the nuance, so I will reproduce it all, right here.
“Certainly the complainant has made a valuable contribution to the program over the years, and the commentaries he submitted were indicative of that. I am satisfied there is nothing to exclude him from further contributing to the Fishline segment, only that the program is looking for content distinct from some of his earlier material.
Naturally, though, there is no obligation to continue to feature his contributions. The program has the freedom to choose as it wishes to work within policy that requires a range of views. Indeed, it is important to introduce new contributors regularly. I am satisfied the program makes a consistent, conscious effort to provide the broadest possible commentary on issues involving the fishery, and in so doing that it adheres to CBC journalistic policy.
I concluded that the complaint about Furlong’s statement needed to take into account the context in which it was made. I found he was keeping the conversation going by summarizing and reflecting the views of political parties that there was little point to a review of past practices in the fishery. The important context here was that he was in conversation with a guest and trying to further prod him to discuss his views, not endeavouring to take a stand and use the platform to express it.
Another element of the complaint was the program’s treatment of the complainant during the election campaign. At that time the program had to be cognizant of journalistic policy to provide equitable treatment of political parties and candidates. It featured discussions with representatives of the parties during the election on the fishery and with the leaders of the parties on related issues. Given this equitability requirement, the program would have been imbalanced and likely breached policy had it featured the complainant’s commentary during that time. It wisely steered clear of this.
There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices."
The Ombudsman made the right decision, and did so with clarity, tact and restraint. Had it been me writing the report, I might have been more direct. I might have said that Dr. Earle hogs too much airtime – that his commentaries are repetitious, monotonous dirges that have lapsed into self-parody.
Bravo to any broadcaster who curtails his calls, even a little, to allow a broader range of opinion on the airwaves.