February 6, 2013 - It was a meltdown of Williamsian proportions.
On January 29, VOCM Open Line host Randy Simms went ballistic, causing a scene that made headlines provincially and nationally.
The episode was triggered by Simms’s opening monologue, in which he called out aboriginal leaders for being “stupid” for refusing to recognize the province’s five-year ban on caribou hunting. I don’t have a recording of this but I did hear it and, if memory serves, he taunted Natuashish Chief Simeon Tshakapesh and Prote Poker, Grand Chief of the Innu Nation, by name.
Moments later, the first caller was Tshakapesh. (Later, we found out that Tshakapesh hadn’t called the show at all – VOCM had called him and asked him to go on the air.) The call lasted about a minute. Simms repeated that Tshakepesh was stupid and an “idiot.”
Tshakapesh responded by calling Simms a racist, to which Simms replied: “You’re an arsehole. Goodbye!” and then cut off the chief. The call lasted about a minute.
Not long after, Brian Sparkes called to challenge Simms, saying that Tshakapesh was owed an apology.
“He may not be right in his points but he certainly has a right to speak openly and freely on your program without being harassed and ridiculed,” Sparkes said. “I think your remarks do border on racist.”
Again, Simms lost it.
“Do you know what pisses me off the most, Brian?” he yelled. “You guys take any statement that anybody makes – you guys do this all the time and you cover it all up and you bury it.”
Sparkes said, “(You can) cut me off too Randy because you haven’t got the guts to sit there and listen.”
“Oh, go to hell,” Simms interjected, cutting off the call. “Brian, I am not a racist, all right? I am not putting up with that shit either.”
You can hear both exchanges here (and this is probably not suitable for work, or tender ears):
Normally, Simms is the calm one. Not this time. His outburst was reminiscent of a certain call that Simms received from Danny Williams in June 2009.
The meltdown made headlines in other media, including a top of page one story in The Telegram. You can read that here:
The day following his exchange with Tshakapesh, Simms apologized “unequivocally” to the callers he so abruptly cut off. However, the apology was half-hearted, indulgent and defensive, and was more about Randy Simms than the people he insulted. (I would link to the apology, but it is no longer posted at the VOCM site.)
There were many callers and online commenters who criticized Simms, but even more who agreed with him and said he should not have apologized at all. Some of them sounded downright racist. Simms found himself in the uncomfortable and awkward position of being defended by some pretty intolerant voices who were emboldened by his outburst. (Again, the comments under Simms’s apology are no longer posted at the VOCM site.)
And that’s the end of it. Or so Randy Simms and VOCM would hope.
But this is not done. Tshakapesh did not accept the apology, and has suggested that some kind of further action is imminent. This could include a range of tactics, from an invigorated Idle No More movement in Labrador to a complaint to the CRTC.
It could also include legal action against Simms and VOCM. And this still lingers as a distinct possibility because despite Simms’s apology, the fact remains that he called Tshakapesh “stupid” and an “arsehole” – possibly slanderous accusations – and then refused to give the chief a chance to defend himself on the air. This is frowned upon rather severely in the world of journalism.
In other words, when you hear a journalist wrap up a news story with “the minister was not available for comment” they are making an important point: that the other side was given a chance to defend itself but wouldn’t or couldn’t respond.
In this case, Open Line insulted someone in the monologue, then refused to give that person an opportunity to respond – instead closing the call with another insult. I’m not sure if that’s legally actionable, but I expect Tshakapesh has consulted his lawyer about it.
VOCM should be concerned about this too. They have a disclaimer off the top of the show, that the opinions expressed are not those of the station, but that doesn’t protect them at all in the event of a lawsuit.
On that point, I refer you to the case of Bou Malhab vs. Diffusion Métromédia, in which a minority group sued a radio host for making racially intolerant remarks – along with the broadcaster who aired them. The outcome of the case is not necessarily relevant because circumstances may have been different. The bottom line is, Metromedia was tangled up in the lawsuit for more than 10 years. Disclaiming responsibility will not prevent you from being named in a suit.
You can read about that case here:
To clarify, I am not taking sides here. I actually agree with some of what Simms said. But this controversy is not about whether Simms was right or wrong – a point that is still lost on those who are defending Simms. This is about insulting someone without allowing fair opportunity to respond.
I think Tshakapesh is right when he says this isn’t over. And if VOCM wants it to go away, they should reach out to the chief and try to get him back on the air so that he can properly defend himself.
ADDENDUM: If you asked me, I’d say there is nothing funny about this story. But leave it to this creative soul to prove me wrong. Kathy took the audio from that Open Line call and came up with this odd little remix: