Utterance of word ‘dick’ did not violate broadcast standards, watchdog rules

A political operative’s utterance of the word “dick” during a live news show did not violate broadcast standards, a watchdog has ruled, in a decision that found the crude euphemism for the male appendage is on par with words like “idiot” or “goofball.”

David Herle, then the Ontario Liberal Party’s campaign co-chair, made the remark on Toronto’s CP24 news channel during an April panel discussion about the upcoming provincial election. At one point the moderator asked Herle whether voters trusted Ontario Progressive Conservative leader and eventual election-winner Doug Ford more than his late brother Rob, formerly the city’s mayor.

“No,” Herle replied. “I think people liked Rob Ford and I think people think Doug Ford’s a bit of a dick, to be honest.”

Hours later, Herle issued a public apology, saying: “Today, I used a term in reference to Mr. Ford that was inappropriate and I regret it. I withdraw that remark and apologize for its use without qualification.”

That didn’t satisfy one anonymous viewer, who complained to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council about Herle’s language, writing that CP24 should consider using a delay during live programs or issue disclaimers that warn viewers they might hear obscene language.

In its response, CP24 said it “relies on the professionalism of our guests in these panel discussions to behave appropriately” and that there had never been an issue with their behaviour before.

The broadcaster noted that the moderator, Stephanie Smyth, immediately admonished Herle on the air — “Oooh, language! … Sorry, everyone,” she said — and that Herle’s apology was broadcast repeatedly.

CP24 argued that the word “dick” is seen today as a “very mild derogatory expression,” and pointed out that the council has previously deemed acceptable the words “ass,” “crap” and “bitch” during episodes of the adult animated show South Park.

In a written decision, the council has agreed the term is commonly used and only “mildly pejorative” and does not rise to the level of language that should be classified as “intended for adult audiences” or relegated to the overnight broadcast hours.

In fact, the council has only ever put two words — the “f-word” and the “c-word” (an obscene term for female genitalia) — into that category. The word “dick,” the panel ruled, is more on par with the words “bitch,” “idiot” and “goofball.”

In reaching its decision, the panel said it relied on studies out of Britain and New Zealand, which recognized that broadcasters have limited control during live programming and found apologies that are sincere and immediate “can serve to mitigate the broadcast of inappropriate language.”

The decision was not completely unanimous, however. Two dissenting members felt the use of the term “dick” was “used to insult a particular individual” and thus violated a clause in the code of ethics, which states that broadcasters must adhere to the principle of “full, fair and proper presentation of news, opinion, comment and editorial.”

But the majority did not agree, writing that Herle “did not actually say that Doug Ford was a ‘dick’ but rather that some people consider him to be ‘a bit of a dick.’ Moreover, the panel does not want to discourage the spontaneous and unrehearsed nature of live talk shows.”

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