Broadcasting Commission Letter addressed to Étienne Lanthier and Stéphanie Hudon (RNC MEDIA INC.)

Ottawa, 7 February 2019

By Email

M. Étienne Lanthier
sortonslespoubelles@gmail.com

Me Stéphanie Hudon
Directrice, affaires juridiques
RNC MEDIA INC.
shudon@rncmedia.ca

Re : Complaint by Étienne Lanthier against CHOI-FM  (CRTC reference: 763104)

Sir, Madam,

The present constitutes the Commission’s determination in relation to a complaint submitted by Étienne Lanthier, dated 21 November 2017, relating to CHOI-FM’s electoral programming during the 2017 municipal elections in Quebec City. Footnote1

The Complaint

The complainant alleged that CHOI-FM’s programming demonstrated a clear bias in favour of the political party Québec 21, and a hostility towards the incumbent mayor, Régis Labeaume, and his political party, Équipe Labeaume.  The complainant further alleged that the electoral programming was largely centered on discussions pertaining to the incumbent mayor, his party and, to a lesser extent, to Québec 21, such that coverage of other registered parties and their candidates was largely non-existent.  In support of his complaint, Mr. Lanthier provided a breakdown of programming aired by CHOI-FM and provided an assessment of the relative time dedicated to various registered parties as well as his assessment of whether such programming was favourable or unfavourable to the concerned parties and their candidates.

The complainant submitted that the licensee’s programming during the 2017 municipal election period was in violation of section 6 of the Radio Regulations, 1986.

Licensee’s Response

The licensee submitted that it had provided each registered political party with equal opportunities to discuss their electoral platform on air.  In this regard, it submitted that numerous invitations to appear on air were extended to representatives of the various parties during the course of the electoral period, many of which were either declined or not responded to.  Amongst other arguments, the licensee highlighted that it had broadcast two separate political debates, which included representatives from various parties, and that the electoral coverage conducted by its news team in the form of information bulletins served to inform the public on matters pertaining to the elections and the positions taken by the parties and their candidates.

Finally, the licensee submitted that while its various programming hosts shared their opinions on various matters arising in the context of the municipal elections, these opinions diverged from host to host such that, CHOI-FMs coverage, taken as a whole, served to treat the various parties and their candidates in an equitable manner.

Complainant’s Reply

In reply, the complainant submitted that the licensee effectively admitted that the representation of the various municipal political parties was not equitable, noting that section 6 of the Regulations speaks to the equitable allocation of time to the various parties.  He submitted that an intent to allocate time equitably is not relevant, such that invitations extended to parties, their representatives and candidates which are declined are of no relevance. Footnote2

Commission’s Analysis

Allocation of time to registered political parties and candidates

Section 6 of the Radio Regulations, 1986 (Regulations) stipulates as follows:

During an election period, a licensee shall allocate time for the broadcasting of programs, advertisements or announcements of a partisan political character on an equitable basis to all accredited political parties and rival candidates represented in the election or referendum.

An equitable allocation of time, for the purposes of section 6 of the Regulations, is assessed on the basis of the entire election period.  In its Guidelines for TV and radio broadcasters and TV service providers during an election (Guidelines), the Commission indicated that “equitable” in this context, is not synonymous with “equal”.

Rather, the Commission’s enforcement of this regulation seeks to ensure that the public is adequately informed of relevant political issues in order to inform their electoral decisions. 

It would be unreasonable to adopt the complainant’s interpretation of this provision as requiring that a broadcaster dedicate equal broadcast time to all candidates and parties and that rejected offers of broadcast time play no part in assessing compliance with this regulatory requirement. In that case, a decision by one party or candidate to forgo interview opportunities would mean that the undertaking could air no interview conducted with any party representative or candidate.  This interpretation would run counter to the purpose of the regulation.

The record associated with this complaint indicates that CHOI-FM broadcast numerous interviews with various candidates and party representatives and that a number of further interview requests were either declined or not responded to.   The record also demonstrates that the licensee broadcast two separate political debates that included representatives from three prominent registered parties. 

Programming during the election period

Subparagraphs 3(1)(i)(i) and 3(1)(i)iv) of the Broadcasting Act (the Act) declare that programming should:

  1.  be varied and comprehensive, providing a balance of information, enlightenment and entertainment for men, women and children of all ages, interests and tastes; […]

and

  1.  provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern.

The Commission has recognized that its assessment of balance must both account for the interpretive principle set out at subsection 2(3) of the Act to the effect that the Act is to be “construed and applied in a manner that is consistent with the freedom of expression and journalistic, creative and programming independence enjoyed by broadcasting undertakings” and the reality that each licensee’s situation is unique.  It follows that the policy objective of balance in electoral political broadcasts is to be applied in a flexible manner. 

While the information on the record indicates that many of the hosts were opinionated and, in many instances, that the programming reflected editorial perspectives, the information also reveals that the programming, as a whole, demonstrated an openness to being critical of all political parties and candidates. Furthermore, the record demonstrates that the licensee’s talk-show programming covered a variety of issues pertinent to the election and provided numerous on air interviews with candidates from the various registered parties, as well as some independent candidates. 

Finally, the record indicates that the licensee provided news coverage throughout the election period touching on relevant electoral issues and of the positions of various candidates and parties with respect to these issues.

In sum, the broadcasts allowed for the public to have knowledge of issues surrounding the election and the position of the parties and candidates.   That various hosts took editorial positions with respect to these issues reflects the nature of the programming identified by the complainant, namely talk-show programming, and does not serve to demonstrate that their audience were not informed of the issues or of the positions of the various candidates and parties.  A flexible application of the Commission’s balance standard that appropriately reflects the nature of the programming at issue and the editorial independence enjoyed by the licensee argues against the need for Commission intervention.

Determinations

In light of the above, the Commission determines, on the basis of the record before it:

Sincerely,

Claude Doucet
Secretary General

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