ARCHIVED -  Public Notice CRTC 1988-121

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Public Notice

Ottawa, 29 July 1988
Public Notice CRTC 1988-121
Proposed Guidelines for Open Line Programs
Open line programs have been a vital part of Canadian broadcasting since the early 1960s. Popular from the start, their significance has grown over the past twenty-five years, partly because they offer an opportunity for lively public discussion. While this type of programming is more prevalent on radio, television broadcasters and programmers of the community channel of cable systems have also used it to provide the public with an outlet for the expression of a wide range of differing views. Further, by providing a forum for discussion of matters of public concern, open line programs have also involved the electronic media in the daily assessment of public affairs and subjects of community interest.
Open line programs take a variety of forms. Some have a moderator with a panel of guests taking calls on one particular topic; others feature program hosts who concentrate on a single issue or who take calls on a wide spectrum of subjects. Topics for these programs can range from public affairs to sports, gardening, celebrities or guidance on a variety of matters. At their best, open line programs offer an opportunity for informed discussion and enlightened comment on matters of interest to the public. They also provide entertainment and diversion for many Canadians.
As part of their mandate, licensees have always been encouraged to deal with a broad range of topics of public interest and to give access to a variety of points of view. However, some open line programs have given rise to complaints by listeners and viewers. These complaints have resulted in discussions at public hearings, the issuance of public notices of censure by the Commission, and prosecutions for infringements of the regulations governing radio and television.
The complaints received about open line programs tend to relate to three general areas: the broadcasting of comments considered abusive on the basis of remarks about race, colour, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, mental or physical disability; failure to provide reasonable, balanced opportunity for the expression of differing views on matters of public concern; and a failure to meet the high standard of programming required of broadcasters. This last issue usually involves personal attacks against individuals or groups, sensationalism, lack of program preparation, inaccurate statements or overall carelessness in dealing with controversial issues.
The role of the moderator is often a determining factor in the quality of open line programs. Intimidating and insulting callers, cutting off those with different points of view and expressing personal biases are among the abuses that some moderators have committed.
An ill-considered choice of guest or topic has at times also given rise to complaints. While the use of expert guests can help illuminate a topic or clearly set out a particular point of view, an inattentive, unprepared or unskilled host or the insensitive selection of guests can lead to abusive comment or failure to satisfy the Broadcasting Act's balance and high standard requirements. Similarly, while the airing of callers' comments can provide different views on issues and hence contribute to balance, careless screening of callers or lack of attention to their remarks can lead to a number of problems, including offensive language, abusive comments and personal attacks.
In recent years there have been three incidents involving open line programs that have been serious enough for the Commission to issue a Public Notice or to institute a prosecution in the courts.
On 4 November 1985 the Commission issued Public Notice CRTC 1985-236 censuring radio station CKNW New Westminster for racially offensive remarks directed against the native peoples of Canada that were broadcast on an open line program on 3 April 1985. The Commission emphasized that racially abusive broadcasting was unacceptable, required the station to take whatever steps were necessary to prevent a recurrence of such an irresponsible use of the airwaves, and to report to the Commission on the steps taken.
On 1 September 1987 the Commission issued Public Notice CRTC 1987-196 censuring radio station CJRN Niagara Falls for racially offensive remarks about the native peoples of Canada, that were broadcast by CJRN on open line programs on 6 and 11 March and 16 April 1987. The Commission found that the conduct of the program host had prevented any possibility of reasonable debate, that he had actively promoted negative stereotyping, denigration and ridicule, and the clearly forseeable effect was the fostering of racial prejudices and ill-will toward native Canadians. While the Commission noted that the licensee had taken corrective action to avoid a recurrence of such incidents, it nevertheless warned the licensee that a repetition would lead to stingent action on the part of the Commission.
Recently, Fundy Broadcasting Co. Limited pleaded guilty to charges laid against it for contravening paragraph 3(b) of the Radio Regulations, 1986 concerning abusive comments relating to Jews and Blacks aired by radio station CFBC, Saint John, New Brunswick on 6 November 1987. These comments were made during a guest appearance by Mr. Terry Long of the Aryan Nation group on a CFBC open line program.
All licensees are subject to the requirements of the Broadcasting Act. In addition, radio licensees are bound by the Radio Regulations, 1986 and television licensees are bound by the Television Broadcasting Regulations, 1987. A number of provisions of the Act and of the regulations are particularly relevant to open line programs. The following principles have been addressed by the Commission at one time or another, but the popularity and nature of open line programs and the existence of related complaints have persuaded the Commission that reiteration of these principles is warranted at this time.
1. Responsibility for the programming broadcast
Paragraph 3(c) of the Act states:
 "all persons licensed to carry on broadcasting undertakings have a responsibility for programs they broadcast but the right to freedom of expression and the right of persons to receive programs, subject only to generally applicable statutes and regulations, is unquestioned".
A moderator or host is an employee of the licensee and as such exercises the responsibility of the licensee under the Act. Producers and programmers also carry out the licensee's responsibilities. Moreover, a licensee cannot be absolved of the responsibility for comments made during an open line program merely by the fact that a guest on that program, or a caller, is not an employee of the licensee.
2. Balance
Paragraph 3(d) of the Act states in part:
 "the programming provided by the Canadian broadcasting system ... should provide reasonable, balanced opportunity for the expression of differing views on matters of public concern...".
The Commission encourages its licensees to discuss a wide variety of issues in their programming, including matters of public concern. It considers that the public, through the presentation of various points of view on such issues, should be placed in a position to make its own informed judgment on controversial issues.
In this day of intense competition in radio for audience loyalty to stations rather than to programs, the broadcaster has a heightened responsibility to provide a diversity of points of view on matters of public concern in his programming. The greater the controversy, the greater the need for balance.
The Commission has required that balance in the broadcasting system be maintained in the broadcasting system in the following manner:
 a) Each undertaking must comply with the requirement of the Act regarding balance in its own programming.
 b) Not all programming need be balanced, only that relating to matters of public concern.
 c) In general, balance need not be attained in each program or series of programs but rather in the overall programming offered by each undertaking over a reasonable period of time.
 d) To attain balance, equal time need not necessarily be given for each point of view. Rather, it is expected that a variety of points of view will be made available in the programming offered by the undertaking to a reasonably consistent viewer or listener over a reasonable period of time.
The Commission considers that it is the licensee's responsibility to decide whether an issue is a matter of public concern and to determine the manner in which balance is to be achieved. However, the Commission may subsequently review a licensee's handling of controversial matters, whether in response to a complaint or otherwise.
3. High Standard
Paragraph 3(d) of the Act also states:
 "...the programming provided by each broadcaster should be of high standard...".
Personal attacks on individuals or groups, unresearched and inaccurate reporting and failure to meet professional standards are examples of failure to meet the high standard of programming required of each licensee.
4. Abusive Comment
Section 3 of the Radio Regulations, 1986 states, in part:
 "A licensee shall not broadcast
 (b) any abusive comment that, when taken in context, tends or is likely to expose an individual or a group or class of individuals to hatred or contempt on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability".
Paragraph 5 (1)(b) of the Television Broadcasting Regulations, 1987 prohibits abusive comment or abusive pictorial representation on the same grounds.
Given that the broadcasting of abusive comment is a violation of the regulations, abusive comment cannot be balanced: it must not be broadcast at all.
5. Telephone Interviews
Section 3 of the Radio Regulations, 1986 states, in part:
 "A licensee shall not broadcast
 (e) any telephone interview or conversation, or any part thereof, with any person unless
 i) the person's oral or written consent to the interview or conversation being broadcast was obtained prior to the broadcast, or
 ii) the person telephoned the station for the purpose of participating in a broadcast".
Radio broadcasters are reminded that those who initiate an interview must obtain the permission of the person called before broadcasting his or her remarks.
The Commission realizes that those open line programs in which anonymous participants deal with controversial issues in an unrehearsed format may pose special difficulties with respect to the requirements of the broadcasting regulations and the Act. Accordingly, special attention on the part of licensees is required to ensure that these requirements are satisfied.
While not wishing to propose additional regulations to deal specifically with such programs, the Commission considers that guidelines may assist licensees in fulfilling the requirements of the Act and regulations in relation to open line programming. It therefore invites public comment on the following proposed guidelines, in addition to any other suggestions or alternatives in this regard.
Once the final form of the guidelines has been determined, the Commission will expect licensees to indicate, at the time of licence renewal, their commitment to adhere to the guidelines or to submit for approval their own stricter guidelines dealing with the conduct of open line programs.
With a view to assisting radio, television and cable licensees in ensuring that abusive comment is not broadcast during open line programs, the following guidelines are proposed:
1. Appropriate mechanisms should be put into place to ensure the pre-screening of incoming calls.
2. A tape delay system should be in place to allow deletion of abusive comment and other material the broadcast of which would be likely to contravene the regulations or the Act.
3. In choosing guests to appear on open line programs, licensees should take appropriate steps to minimize the possibility of abusive comment. This includes familiarizing themselves with the intentions of the guests and familiarizing the guests with the regulations concerning abusive comment, as well as asking for prior assurance that they will respect the regulations during the broadcast.
4. Precautions, similar to those for guests, should be taken with respect to callers who participate in open line programs, particularly where the issues being discussed are likely to be volatile and controversial. The program host should take care to caution potential callers on air at the start of and throughout the program.
The following guidelines are proposed to assist licensees in satisfying the balance requirement of the Act when dealing with controversial issues on open line programs:
1. A range of views on issues of public concern should be presented. Since, on many undertakings, open line programs are the only forum in which controversial issues are addressed, licensees should ensure that various perspectives on issues of public concern are provided in the program or series of programs dealing with a particular issue. Adequate program preparation is essential, and could include the consultation of resource material and persons or the invitation of expert participants to represent various aspects of a particular issue to supplement the views of callers who phone the undertaking on their own initiative.
2. Although lively debate is an important element of open line programs, hosts should not be more critical or demanding of persons with one point of view than of those with another, nor should certain points of view be screened out.
3. Care must be taken to protect programs from being taken over by organized groups of callers such that the program becomes a vehicle for the organized presentation of one point of view.
The Commission proposes the following guidelines to help licensees ensure that open line programs are of high standard as required by the Act:
1. Program moderators should either avoid any controversial topic in which they or their guests have a personal interest or identify that interest and the potential conflict during the program. In such a situation, the requirement of balance must also be taken into account.
2. All participants should be treated fairly and with courtesy. Such treatment will help to ensure that people with a range of views and from a variety of backgrounds take part. Program moderators have the right and responsibility to challenge callers and guests on their views. However, participants should not be subjected to badgering, insult or ridicule by the program moderator.
3. Procedures for checking the accuracy of facts should be established by the licensee, whether by means of reference material or by contacting persons in a position to comment accurately on issues raised on the program. The use of guest experts is encouraged.
4. Some open line programs provide listeners with advice. Hosts and guests of such programs must be aware of the limits of their competence and not dispense advice in areas beyond their expertise.
5. Program hosts should avoid sensationalism and the use of programs to conduct personal attacks.
The Commission invites comments from interested parties on the Guidelines for Open Line Programs proposed in this document, and other suggestions in this regard. Comments should be submitted by 6 September 1988 and addressed to the Secretary General, CRTC, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0N2.
Fernand Bélisle Secretary General

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