Alleged sharing of questions with the Opposition

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Review of complaints about the alleged sharing of questions with the Opposition

Review of complaints about the alleged sharing of questions with the Opposition

The CBC's Office of the Ombudsman received 66 complaints about a reporter supposedly feeding questions to a member or members of the Liberal Party during a committee hearing featuring testimony by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

The main complaint came from the Director of Political Operations for the Conservative Party, Doug Finley. He encouraged other Conservatives to join in the complaint and many did.

The Publisher of CBC News, John Cruickshank, replied to the complaints saying:

“Following an investigation by senior management of CBC News, we have determined that our reporter Krista Erickson did, in fact, provide questions to a Member of Parliament in the lead up to the Ethics Committee meeting in December. Those actions, while in pursuit of a journalistically legitimate story, were inappropriate and inconsistent with CBC News policies and procedures…Our investigation determined there was no bias in related news coverage. However, our reporter, acting on her own, used inappropriate tactics as a result of journalistic zeal, rather than partisan interest.”

In addition, he began disciplinary action against the journalist in question, Krista Erickson. While many of the complainants asked me to review the matter, I was constrained from doing so until the disciplinary matter was settled. Since that has now happened, I will proceed with the review.


Most complaints I receive are about material that has appeared on-air. In this case, the complaints centre on the alleged actions of a CBC journalist in gathering material.

Even in a book as extensive as CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices, it is difficult to set down rules for every possible action by a journalist. In fact, to attempt to do so would probably be an inhibition to good journalism.

That being said, there are a number of general propositions that will come into play in this review. For instance, in the policy book are these general guidelines relating to Credibility:

3. CREDIBILITY

In an open society, credibility is an essential attribute of a journalistic organization. The credibility of the organization and that of its journalists are interdependent, flowing one from the other. Credibility is dependent not only on qualities such as accuracy and fairness in reporting and presentation, but also upon avoidance by both the organization and its journalists of associations or contacts which could reasonably give rise to perceptions of partiality. Any situation which could cause reasonable apprehension that a journalist or the organization is biased or under the influence of any pressure group, whether ideological, political, financial, social or cultural, must be avoided. In the engagement and assignment of persons working in information programs, the organization must be sensitive to their published views, their personal involvements and their associations and backgrounds in order to avoid any perception of bias or of susceptibility to undue influence in the execution of their professional responsibilities. In order to maintain their own credibility and that of the CBC, on-air personnel, as well as those who edit, produce or manage CBC programs, must avoid publicly identifying themselves in any way with partisan statements or actions on controversial matters.

Also:

4. PROTECTION OF SOURCES
4.1 ETHICAL ASPECTS

The Corporation strongly upholds the principle of freedom of information and considers the protection of a journalist's sources to be an important element of this principle. Information about which the public should know is sometimes only available through a confidential source. Off-the-record discussions with journalists, for example, are often held by public figures and others. If the confidentiality of sources were not respected as a matter of principle this would inhibit the free flow of information which is essential to the vitality of a democratic society. Information from a source who does not wish to be publicly identified may be used if the source is known to the journalist and has a prima facie credibility. However, to avoid the possibility of being manipulated to broadcast inaccurate or biased information, the journalist must carefully check the reliability of the source and must obtain corroborative evidence from other pertinent sources. The identity and bona fides of a confidential source must be made known prior to broadcast to at least one senior editorial supervisor acceptable to the senior officer in information programming. Disclosure of sources within the journalistic line of responsibility should not be confused with public disclosure of sources.

In the general run of reporting, journalists do not often establish the type of close connections with their story subjects that might summon up concern for credibility. However, in all kinds of “beat” reporting, and in Parliamentary reporting in particular, the situation is considerably different. In legislatures, especially on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, members and journalists work in close proximity in what can be described as a “symbiotic” relationship—journalists need information and analysis from legislators; legislators need the press to transmit their messages. Of course in recent decades, the latter has come to be called “spin,” but, in fact, there is a legitimate need for the public to have accurate reporting of both fact and opinion from any legislative centre

It is common, and usually ethically acceptable, for journalists and parliamentarians to discuss privately the issues of the day, test hypotheses, dig for further information that might illuminate a subsequent story. The task for journalists is to carry out those background discussions in a manner that does not compromise their and their employers' ethical standards.

A bit of background: when I was sent to Ottawa by CBC Television News in 1976 to become the Bureau Chief, I discovered a culture both within and beyond the CBC that emphasized close cooperation between journalists and Members of Parliament. Reporters from all media, including the CBC, routinely fed questions to MPs to ask during Question Period. At the time, the main recipients of those questions were members of the Progressive Conservative Party and the NDP, the parties in opposition to the governing Liberals. I asked our reporters to cease that practice, since I felt that it went beyond the normal hallway conversations (“What do you hear? What might you do? What might they do?”). It seemed to me that the direct step of fashioning questions to be asked clearly breached the somewhat malleable boundary between seeking information and directly prompting action.

Some of the reporters of the time disputed my contention as naïve and out of touch with the prevailing practice. After consultation with other senior journalists, it was decided that our Bureau would, indeed, cease the practice. After interviewing all those who have occupied that position since, I have been assured that the policy remains in effect. However, neither I nor they ever inscribed that policy in print, either locally or in the national book—a significant lapse for which I can take a fair measure of responsibility since I subsequently became the Chief News Editor of CBC Television and helped craft one of the original compilations of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

All that being said, it has become clear in my conversations with current journalists and supervisors in the Ottawa Bureau that the practice of directly writing questions for Parliamentarians is considered to be inappropriate for CBC Journalists. I also note that other journalists from respectable media do, on occasion, feed questions to Parliamentarians of all parties. For me, the question is not whether other organizations tolerate the practice, but whether, if it occurred, it was appropriate for CBC journalists.

Krista Erickson arrived in the Bureau in the fall of 2006. She had worked for the CBC, on contract and on staff in Winnipeg for about 6 years. Starting as an intern, her assignments moved through research positions into reporting until she became anchor of the Winnipeg supper hour newscast in 2004. She remained in that position until appointed to the Ottawa Bureau in late 2006.

By all accounts I have heard, Ms. Erickson proved herself to be a journalist of exceptional energy and tenacity. I do note that she had not actually spent a great deal of time as a “street” reporter and, as far as I can tell, had never covered a legislature on an on-going basis. Neither of those factors is necessarily a barrier to being a Parliamentary reporter, but in earlier years, the Bureau was usually staffed with people who had already served as National reporters or who had established significant track records as journalists in one of CBC's regional centers.

All of which is prelude to the events of November and December, 2007. Ms. Erickson, with her usual energy, began to develop a story that was, in effect, an off-shoot of the controversy surrounding former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his various relationships. Ms. Erickson developed sources who told her that Mr. Mulroney may have had conversations with a Conservative Industry Minister, Maxime Bernier, about telecommunications issues. Mr. Mulroney was on the board of Quebecor, a company with significant telecommunications interests. It was suggested that Mr. Mulroney's meeting could be interpreted as lobbying, although he was not registered as a lobbyist. After confirming the story with other sources, almost all allied to the governing party, Ms. Erickson broadcast two stories on the matter in late November.

The story was clearly of public interest: not only in relation to the activities of the former Prime Minister, but also in relation to Prime Minister Harper's call for Conservatives to avoid speaking with Mr. Mulroney until the matters relating to Mr. Karlheinz Schreiber were settled. It is worth noting that no one has suggested that there were inaccuracies in these stories. And it should be noted that her sources in developing the material were of different political persuasions, including Conservative.

It was a very busy time in Ottawa in the late fall of 2007. The Parliamentary atmosphere was becoming increasingly heated, even dysfunctional. All parties were preparing for a possible election. Ms. Erickson felt that there was more to the story than she had been able to report and was encouraged by senior journalists to keep developing her information. In the course of her further reporting, she received from a source a series of questions that had not yet been answered in the Mulroney-Bernier matter. Through journalistic inclination, and with encouragement from other journalists, she widened her circle of discussion to find out whether the Liberals intended to follow up her stories in some way, and whether they had significant information to add. After a discussion with one source, Ms. Erickson agreed to send a note that included her major concerns about the story. In this process, she added to her note the questions sent to her by the non- Liberal source. She had removed any identifying information before sending.

Ms. Erickson was informed that the Liberals intended to pursue this aspect of the story during a committee meeting called to investigate the Mulroney-Schreiber matter. In fact, she was told that questions would be asked by a specific committee member. Subsequently, she was given two other names as the likely questioner. In the end, the questions were posed by Liberal Member of Parliament Pablo Rodriguez. Some of the questions are quite similar to those posed by Ms. Erickson's source which she shared with sources in the Liberal party and discussed with other sources of both Conservative and NDP sympathies.

These varied communications could be seen as the stock-in-trade of Parliamentary reporting—“what do you know, here's what I know.” Indeed, that is what Ms. Erickson says they were: the kind of reporting done by most reporters on the Hill. However, when she told more senior journalists that some of her “trading” was in the form of direct questions, some said it was a mistake to do that and she should inform her supervisors, which she did.

Although several people with knowledge of her first conversation with CBC News management say that Ms. Erickson admitted that she may have “crossed the line,” in subsequent meetings Ms. Erickson has maintained that she did not knowingly commit an error.

Later that day (December 13) a former Member of Parliament, Jean Lapierre, now a radio host, said on the Mike Duffy Live program on CTV that Mr. Rodriguez had been fed the questions from a CBC journalist. Another participant on the program, NDP member Joe Comartin, inquired as to why Lapierre and Duffy were so interested in this, since “it” happens all the time; that, in fact, reporters from CTV had approached him with questions. The program did not pursue that aspect of the story further.

Indeed, the CBC holds itself to different standards than other journalistic organizations and should be judged by those standards, not by what everyone else does.

Parliament Hill is one of the most difficult assignments for a journalist. He or she is under constant pressure from employers to cover the fast-moving events of the day— particularly difficult in a minority Parliament—while also providing fresh insights, breaking news from the centre of national power. Even the most experienced journalists may find themselves overwhelmed by the task. It takes journalists of intelligence and confidence, as well as experience, to weather the storms.

The Hill also presents an ethical minefield, as I know first-hand, albeit in a quieter time. The journalist's job is to find out things and tell the viewers, listeners and readers about them. To do that effectively, he or she must cultivate sources within all parties and within the bureaucracy in order to receive insight and guidance on the events of the day. The parties, on the other hand, see their job as promoting their own interests, supplying positive information on their activities, negative comment on their opponents. The journalist, by and large, receives information—using appropriate pieces to construct an accurate and understandable narrative.

Journalists and politicians work in extremely close proximity. In the “old” days, many organizations maintained offices inside Parliament in almost constant, direct contact with the people they were covering. It could be argued that this produced deeper insight and a broader range of information. However, even as late as the 60s it also produced what would be seen today as egregious conflicts of interest: journalists serving as informal advisors to Parliamentarians. In fact, in earlier decades, working members of the Press Gallery were known to write speeches for members of Parliament, including Ministers of the Crown. In my first experience with a Canadian press gallery—Quebec City in 1970—I was surprised to learn that some members of the gallery had routinely received “gifts” from the government at holiday time—gifts of cash, among other things.

Happily, those practices have largely disappeared as journalistic organizations began to recruit journalists with better training and heightened ethical perspective. As a long-time teacher of journalistic ethics (which I do not believe is oxymoronic), I have often said that ethics is not a list of do's and don'ts; it is a habit of mind. It is impossible to write up a list of things one should not do covering all circumstances. Thought, good training and careful policy should provide a solid basis for being able to make quick, ethically sound decisions. However, when one of those elements is missing, the journalist can easily go astray.

In talking with Ms. Erickson, she carefully and vigorously defended her actions by saying that what she had done was the normal give and take of Parliamentary reporting that she saw all around her. In truth, that may indeed be the case outside the CBC bureau. She pointed out that Parliamentarians “leaked” material to her. She asked whether that, too, is unethical. My reply would be that Parliamentarians could look after their own ethical standards—the journalist's job is to get information, test it and publish it, within ethical parameters. Our job is to share information with the public, not to assist any party or government in doing what it is perfectly capable to doing on its own.

The reaction to this episode does little credit to most of the parties involved: the Conservatives who complained loudest appeared to be trying to distract attention from the solid reporting that Ms. Erickson had done, raising questions that have still not been answered. They would, of course, have been fully aware of their own dealings with Parliamentary reporters outside the CBC, yet the tone of some (but not all) of the complaints implied that dealings like this were foreign to the exercise of democracy.

The issue was further complicated by CBC News management's reaction to the matter, moving to disciplinary action against the journalist involved.

In my reading of policy, both written and unwritten, Ms. Erickson clearly did go “over the line” in allowing the appearance that she was providing “script” for certain sources to use. However, it appears to me that she lacked the experience and sensitivity to realize where the line was. There is absolutely no evidence of any partisan interest on her part— she is an aggressive reporter who will pursue a story no matter whose interests are at stake. But, as I found in a previous conversation with her, she is not fully versed on the CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices. She should not have been placed “in harm's way” without a better understanding of CBC policy and proper background or training in the difficult business of Parliamentary reporting.

In addition, News management, going back to my time in a position of authority, should have taken steps to elaborate a clear policy and apply it to all CBC personnel who cover legislative bodies. I note that the Globe and Mail policy manual has the simple and direct statement, “No reporter or editor should plant questions with members of any federal, provincial or municipal legislature or council for any purpose without the prior approval of a senior editor.”

To sum up: Ms. Erickson was pursuing a legitimate and newsworthy story. In her desire to expand her “source” base, she unwisely sent questions to a Liberal source who appears to have moved them through the Liberal Research Bureau. They formed the background for the questioning of Mr. Mulroney, as they might have had she broadcast those questions in a report. I should note that Pablo Rodriguez appears to have written his own questions based on material supplied to him by his colleagues. Due to the nature and specificity of the subject matter, it is not surprising that the language would be similar to the original questions shared by Ms. Erickson.

There is no explicit prohibition in CBC policy of the conduct in question, although it has been the practice of the CBC Ottawa Bureau for the last 30 years to avoid such conduct.

The sections of the policy on Credibility provide general guidance for journalists in thinking about the effects of their actions. The CBC must insure that its journalists understand the implications of the policy in their daily reporting lives. If journalists do appear not to have an understanding of ethical behaviour, they should be closely supervised, or not assigned to the most difficult postings.

Conclusion

Trading information in developing stories is not, per se, a violation of policy. However, when trading can be viewed as direct prompting to action by someone else, CBC's policy on Credibility comes into play since such an action could cause “a reasonable apprehension of bias.” It is clear, however, that there was no bias at play, no matter how perceived by partisan interests.

CBC News lacks sufficiently clear guidelines on conduct within legislative press galleries.

Before promotion, CBC journalists should be able to demonstrate a grasp of the ethical requirements of the position for which they are being considered.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman