Shock jocks pay for demeaning woman

April 12, 2005
Globe and Mail
By Rheal Seguin

Quebec — A Quebec court has awarded a woman $340,000 in a trash-radio defamation suit that has ended one of the city's most bizarre eras in broadcasting.

Former CHOI-FM morning man Jean-François (Jeff) Fillion, his co-hosts as well as station owner Patrice Demers were ordered to pay TV weather presenter Sophie Chiasson $100,000 in moral damages, $200,000 in punitive damages and $40,000 in legal fees for derogatory remarks.

The radio hosts made on-air comments about the size of Ms. Chiasson's breasts, her love life and even her personal demeanour.

In one instance, Mr. Fillion said that according to his sources, Ms. Chiasson had huge breasts. "They are big. They are enormous. It seems it is one her advantages. Unfortunately the size of her brain is not directly proportional to the size of her bra," Mr. Fillion said in September of 2002.

At another time Mr. Fillion talked on-air about Ms. Chiasson's résumé, saying she was an "empty jug" and that she slept with men twice her age.

Mr. Justice Alain Paul of Quebec Superior Court agreed that Ms. Chiasson was publicly harassed, degraded and shattered by the remarks.

"The remarks were devastating and Ms. Chiasson's life deeply affected. It has been a living hell for her for many years," Judge Paul stated in his ruling. "Jean-François Fillion clearly demonstrated that he has no control over himself and his co-hosts. As soon as he is on-air, he blows-up. . . . Mr. Fillion is uncontrollable. He is full of himself, refuses to mend his ways and continues to denigrate his victims."

The judge also stated that Mr. Demers, who is president of Genex Communications Inc., the company that owns the station, refused to stop the verbal onslaught, which went on for more than five years, long after Ms. Chiasson filed her suit in 2002.

The station has settled previous defamation cases out of court. But Ms. Chiasson refused, determined to seek a court ruling that would set a precedent for all who felt victimized by Mr. Fillion's on-air abuse.

Genex Communications spokesperson Jean-Luc Benoît said yesterday the company would appeal the decision, arguing that the damages exceed the amounts normally awarded in defamation suits.

The case has crippled CHOI-FM's stature and influence as Quebec City's No. 1 station. Mr. Fillion was taken off the air last month and the station has since tempered its morning show with a less aggressive format that includes less talk and more music.

Along with his team of morning shock jocks, Mr. Fillion had wielded more power and influence than any other radio show.

Last summer, tens of thousands of his listeners took to the streets in defence of his right to free speech when the federal regulators revoked the station's licence. The issue helped rally thousands more behind the cause and increase the station's audience.

Last year, Mr. Fillion successfully called on voters in a Quebec City by-election to elect the right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec party candidate.

His personal attacks were often aimed at left-wing and pro-sovereignty political figures. He even urged his followers to take justice into their own hands in the city's campaign against juvenile prostitution.

Now that Mr. Fillion is gone, many are wondering how a tolerant and progressive society could be so receptive to his approach.

"The more a talk radio host is controversial, the more listeners he will attract," University of Laval linguistics professor Diane Vincent noted in a recent study of trash radio in Quebec City. The profits, she noted, can be huge for a station that could attract more than 100,000 listeners every 15 minutes during peak listening hours.

But confrontation and controversy only partly explain Mr. Fillion's success. In his seven years at CHOI-FM, he tapped into the frustrations of disfranchised people and so-called angry white males.

Quebec City is known for its homogeneous, conservative population dominated by civil servants and public-sector employees. Montreal's economic influence has long been resented, as has the overpowering presence of the government. Mr. Fillion adapted the style of controversial radio host André Arthur to a younger, angrier audience.

Some of the people he spoke against were driven to hide and others remained silent for fear of reprisals.

"I know there are many people who were afraid to express themselves for fear of being socially demonized because of this kind of radio," said Marc-François Bernier, University of Ottawa professor of journalism and ethics.

Politicians, union leaders, even the city's small black community had called for Mr. Fillion's dismissal. But the Chiasson case finally brought the empire down.

Born into a working-class family, Ms. Chiasson epitomized the devastation of being the target of a powerful radio host. The court heard that Ms. Chiasson was being followed and her personal life repeatedly scrutinized on the air.

Prof. Vincent said it will be up to listeners and local businesses that buy ads to decide whether a similar phenomenon can reappear.

"You don't create a character as powerful as Mr. Fillion overnight. With his departure, the scenery has changed. We will have to wait and see if the demand is great enough among the population for sponsors to take the risk of creating another individual like this again," she said.