Where’s the consistency?

  • December 5, 2012

A one-month suspension given to a Montreal radio host who allowed, or perhaps tacitly encouraged, anti-Semitic commentary on his phone-in show has provoked considerable debate as to whether the punishment is in proportion to the breach of ethics.

Jacques Fabi has been on the air for 35 years and is described as “king of the night” at his midnight to 5:30 a.m. phone-in show on 98.5 FM. On Nov. 22, a caller identifying herself as Maria launched into a hate-filled rant against Jews and Israel, even including some praise for the Holocaust. Of concern is not just that the caller got through the station’s normal screening procedures, but also that she was not stopped immediately by Fabi, who instead added a few comments of his own, including that despite freedom of expression, “it is very difficult to make any negative comments about Jews.”

He allowed the conversation to go on for some time and at the end politely thanked the contributor for her call. In his subsequent apology, portions of which were printed in the National Post, Fabi said he would never endorse the caller’s “anti-Semitic comments” nor trivialize the Holocaust.

“For 35 years I have hosted a nighttime call-in segment and it is not the first time that a listener has tried to use it as a vehicle for communicating unacceptable messages,” he said. “I have always reacted quickly in order to avert these situations. Unfortunately, I did not last week.”

For some people, the apology should have been enough, but for others the suspension, as well as the censure of his peers, is appropriate. I agree with the suspension, since it underlines the importance of responsibility on the part of those who control the use of broadcasting outlets. This is not the “wild west” of the Internet, where technically it is almost impossible to regulate web sites operated by the hateful and the twisted. The fact that people are free to hold opinions doesn’t mean that a radio station is obliged to provide a platform for them.

With that said, it would be nice to see some consistency in standards. Just a few weeks before the Montreal incident, John Tory’s suppertime drive-home show onToronto’s NewsTalk 1010 included, during panel conversation, a joke by panelist Gail Vaz-Oxlade about the Pope and masturbation. I know of at least a dozen e-mails being sent to the station about the remark. Many were unanswered. Of those that were, the brief apology was of the “just a joke” and “no offence intended” variety.

I’m not suggesting that a sick joke about a public figure is on the same level as vile anti-Semitism, but for some people the “joking remark” about the Pope was almost as offensive, and it was at a time of day when many more people were likely to hear it.

Over the years, the Catholic Civil Rights League has protested dozens of incidents of anti-Catholic content on radio and television, including a Jesus look-alike contest at Eastertime and a Christmas special that portrayed the Virgin Mary as, shall we say, a party girl. While there have been a few apologies from individual stations, I’m not aware of a single case where the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has upheld a complaint about anti- Catholic content, especially if there was any sort of humourous context involved. That is why, for many believers, the dial often goes to the “off” position.

The Montreal episode is a reminder that action from the station is as important as action by the listener.

***

In response to the annual barrage of Christmas and “holiday” advertising, the American Family Association is compiling its “Naughty or Nice List” for 2012. It singles out major North American retailers that avoid using or ban the term Christmas in their advertising, as well as identifying those that still use it.

I understand the reasoning behind this but still I wonder about the fairness of singling out retailers for something that is widespread and to which we all contribute by accepting the “bigger every year” commercialization of Christmas. While we’re free to “report” stores that are reluctant to use “Christmas” in advertising and in-store greetings, I have always found the simpler solution is to wish a Merry Christmas to those we buy from, but also to happily accept any and all greetings in the spirit in which they’re intended.


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