Radio Censorship Debate Heats Up

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Source: The Brock Press – By Nathan Heuvingh

If you have heard enough Dire Straits or “Money for Nothing” wisecracks this past week to last you a lifetime, then you are likely not alone.

Dire Straits

However, the recent debacle between a concerned citizen, the CBSC, and more recently the CRTC – while growing tiresome – opens the door to a wide range of issues surrounding censorship in broadcasting.

Faced with a complaint from an individual offended by the use of the word “faggot” in the Dire Straits hit, the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council (CBSC) perhaps haphazardly ruled that the word was discriminatory and should no longer be played by Canadian private broadcasters. To many broadcasters, music enthusiasts and critics, the ruling was deemed irrational not only due to the context of the word in question, but also because this complaint comes approximately 25 years after this timeless classic was released.

A significant amount of opposition has emerged following the CBSC ruling; some broadcasters have showed their dismay by playing “Money for Nothing” on hour-long loops while others have expressed their disbelief by vocalizing it over the airwaves – an act that seriously undermines the CBSC. The attention directed toward the CBSC is not something they are necessarily used to.

“Most of the time, nobody – other than a few lobbyists – knows what the CBSC is or does,” said Nick Baxter-Moore, a Professor for the Department of Communications, Popular Culture and Film at Brock University. “Then, once in a while, it makes a bone-headed decision, hits the headlines and has its allotted 15 minutes of fame before sinking back into obscurity. However, this decision has hit enough headlines that the agency and its procedures have come under scrutiny.”

The current approach to broadcasting in Canada establishes that the federal government lay down the broad policy goals through continuous Broadcasting Acts, while the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is responsible for awarding and renewing licenses and the industry is permitted to regulate itself (via the CBSC) when considering day-to-day procedures. Therefore, the recent decision was largely made by the broadcasters themselves, free from government influence or political involvement. The lingering questions is if this system is functioning as it should? With the unimaginable opposition to the recent censorship of the Dire Straits song it would appear it is not.

“In the case of “Money for Nothing,” a single complaint from an individual, who self-identified as a member of a well-organized interest group, that was heard by a regional panel of the CBSC, resulted in censorship of the original recording of a song across the entire country,” said Baxter-Moore. “This raises numerous questions, even if one grants [the idea] censorship might be acceptable under some circumstance.”

After receiving a wave of complaints regarding the CBSC ruling, the CRTC is now requesting that the CBSC change their decision and consider the context of the song, the age and origin of the song, the prominence of the contested word, and the frequency in which the song has received airplay. The CRTC serves as the federal regulators of broadcasting in Canada and though the CBSC is not obligated to follow the CRTC recommendations, the CRTC has ultimate authority over broadcast regulations.

Will the CBSC follow the CRTC recommendations? Is the CRTC acting due to public pressure without any expectations? Your guess is as good as mine, but this could provoke CBSC to reconsider the way in which they process complaints and consequently censor certain songs.

“There are some relatively serious problems with the way that the CBSC operates, and especially with the complaints system,” said Baxter-Moore. “At the same time, the alternatives are probably less desirable. So, the real question is, how do we reform the present system without radically changing it?”

It is unclear what actions the CBSC will take on this issue, if any. The CRTC will likely not get involved in any significant way, but perhaps this issue has been of enough importance to give rise to reconsideration of the way that the CBSC acts on requests for censorship. Alternatively, the CBSC could, as they typically do, fade from the headlines and into obscurity as they wait for the next dilemma to surface.

“Words mean nothing in isolation – they are arbitrary signifiers. Context is all. When I was a teenager, it was possible to buy at my local grocery store a frozen dinner called ‘Faggots in Gravy’,” said Baxter-Moore. “You can get a recipe for the dish on the British Broadcasting Corporation Web site. Ironic, isn’t it?”

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