It was underhanded, mean-spirited, even arguably discriminatory. CTV executives decided to air the raw tape of an interview between ATV host Steve Murphy and then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion in which Dion has trouble understanding a grammatically confusing question. The network said it was because it had news value, but in reality it was because it wanted to make Dion look bad.
The move backfired, with public opinion turning against CTV. And now the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has agreed, with two separate rulings that the network violated the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Code of Ethics. (Two panels were actually convened, one regional panel to deal with the CTV Atlantic airing, and a specialty channel panel to deal with the Mike Duffy CTV NewsNet rebroadcast later that evening.)
The decisions basically rule that Murphy’s question was poorly worded, that the network should not have aired the outtakes after promising not to do so, that airing them was unfair to Dion, and that his restarts were not newsworthy enough to justify their airing.
I find myself mostly agreeing with the analysis of the council, though their analysis of Murphy’s grammar is thorough to the point of absurdity.
The specialty channel panel wasn’t unanimous, with two members providing a dissenting opinion that favoured CTV. CTV’s arguments shouldn’t be dismissed here – they argue that restarts like these are rare, even in live-to-tape interviews like this one, and that it should be up to CTV, not the council, to decide what is newsworthy, especially when it comes to the most important interview a newscaster can give – a candidate for prime minister during an election campaign.
One argument that CTV didn’t make which I’ll add is that the question Dion was asked is textbook to the point of being cliché: What would you have done as prime minister? And politicians with even a moderate amount of public exposure should know how to bullshit their way to the next question if they don’t understand it (or don’t have the answer). Had Dion just picked an interpretation of his choosing instead of asking for clarification multiple times, this would never have happened.
But that doesn’t change the fact that CTV said it wouldn’t air the outtakes, and acted in a way that made it clear to Dion they wouldn’t be aired. Dion took advantage of an opportunity, and then got a knife stabbed in his back for his trouble.
UPDATE (June 2): ProjetJ looks at the differences between the CBSC and the Quebec Press Council. The latter has been losing members who also belong to the former (arguing they shouldn’t have to belong to two organizations that do the same thing). It also suggests the press council is more secretive, making its decisions anonymously.
I was busy dealing with real news tonight, so I completely missed the broohaha over this incident with Stéphane Dion and ATV News.
For those who haven’t heard of it, you’re lucky to have limited exposure to the echo chamber of political gossip reporting. Here’s the deal: ATV (an Atlantic TV network owned by CTV and rebranded CTV Atlantic) had Stéphane Dion on for an on-camera but pre-taped interview. Host Steve Murphy asked Dion a question about what he’d do about the economy if he was prime minister today, and Dion started answering before realizing he didn’t quite understand the question. It was an awkward exchange with a few false starts.
Dion asked if they could re-start the interview, and Murphy agreed. Murphy also, according to CTV, “indicated” that the bad part of the interview would not be aired.
Except later, after the interview, people at the network huddled and decided to go back on their word and air the outtakes, deeming them to have some news value.
Thanks to Stephen Harper’s decision to devote a whole press conference to this “gaffe,” it’s been analyzed from all angles:
- Mike Duffy aired the outtakes on his CTV NewsNet program, leading a Liberal panelist to accuse him of making fun of Dion’s physical impairment.
- Canadian Press has analysis of the journalism ethics implications
- Colby Cosh looks into Murphy’s grammar and how a non-native English speaker might have trouble understanding it
- The Globe and Mail has the Liberals’ reaction to the Tory attacks, as well as a specific response from Dion saying he just didn’t understand the question
- Norman Spector points out that this kind of thing has happened before
- Canwest has reaction from Gilles Duceppe, who points out that francophone federal leaders are held to a different standards, while anglo leaders don’t have to know French at all.
- Richard Martineau has his usual fake outrage. And similarly from the other side of this non-story.
- Andrew Coyne takes the view closest to my own, mainly saying that this is a non-issue and the backlash to it is just as stupid.
I don’t have much to add, so I’ll keep it brief:
- CTV’s transgression was not a breach of journalistic ethics. There was no promise of confidentiality, no pre-agreement, and no information was gained through deception. Murphy did, however, go back on his word by airing the outtakes after he “indicated” he wouldn’t.
- Dion’s campaign is right when they say the purpose of airing this was to embarrass Dion. It’s a secret every journalist keeps, even to the point of deceiving ourselves. Political campaigns so ruthlessly control the narrative, that latching on to something they don’t want you to talk about gives us a thrill. It’s not that CTV is biased against Dion. It’s simply biased against politicians and in favour of scandal.
- CTV wasted minutes of airtime putting this interview out there. This time could have been spent on news, and the interview outtakes posted to a blog somewhere. Had that happened, we would not be discussing journalistic ethics here, but the clip would have gotten just as much traction online.
- The clip has little news value. It shows that Dion is a logical thinker, perhaps to a fault, in trying to wrap himself around the exact hypothetical situation. But that’s not why CTV chose to air it. The fact that they did not specify what news value it contained is a good indication that there was none.
- Some have mentioned that Dion has a hearing problem and that may be related. It’s not. The question was clear and the room was quiet. It was a logical comprehension question, mixed in with some grammar issues.
Conclusion: Steve Murphy and his cohorts at ATV are douches, and Stéphane Dion a human francophone who can be annoyingly professorial at times. And it’s just a matter of time before someone unearths an interview outtake of Stephen Harper that makes him look bad.
Now can we get back to the issues?
UPDATE (Oct. 24): J-Source looks back on this story with some interesting background on what happened at ATV and CTV News offices.
Train wreck watch: Stéphane Dion is visiting MuchMusic tomorrow, trying to sway the youth vote (who watch MuchMusic?) with his ubercoolness.
CBC’s Archives, which has good stuff but unfortunately encodes it using Windows Media, which I have to play using my choppy, buggy Quicktime plugin instead of a universal Flash player, has found archival footage of the five party leaders. As you can see, they have wacky hairstyles (Duceppe’s mullet being the most awesome) and big glasses and stuff.
Dion, Harper and Duceppe are all from the same turbulent early 90s era. Dion a political scientist commenting on the Charlottetown Accord pre-referendum. Harper from when he was a Reform Party wonk and before he was elected an MP, and Duceppe after he was elected in a by-election as the first Bloc Québécois MP (and the whole he-swore-an-oath-to-the-Queen controversy).
Layton is from a decade earlier, when he was elected in a surprise upset to Toronto City Council.
But the most interesting clip is of Elizabeth May, 30 years ago in 1978. It’s actually a feature piece for The Fifth Estate, about a debate in Nova Scotia on whether to spray the forest with insecticide to fight the spruce budworm which was devastating forests. Forestry executives were for it, wanting to protect their trees and fearing an epidemic. May was against it, saying the spray had health risks associated with it.
Curious, I looked up the Wikipedia article to see what happened with the whole debate. It seems the infestation died out on its own, as May predicted, and an environmentally-friendly insecticide was created to deal with the problem as well.