Abrupt termination of Prime Minister's remarks

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Abrupt termination of the broadcast of the Prime Minister speaking from outside Rideau Hall after announcing the prorogation of Parliament on Dec. 4, 2008

You wrote to complain about the abrupt termination of the broadcast of the Prime Minister speaking from outside Rideau Hall on December 4, 2008. Mr. Harper had just announced the prorogation of Parliament and was taking questions from reporters. You felt that the CBC had “dropped the ball” and that other programming “cannot be more important than broadcasting our (prime minister) outlining what steps he intends to take to get everyone working together to address our common problems.” You acknowledged that the broadcast may have continued on Newsworld, but said that “many Canadians …myself included, do not have access to (Newsworld).”

The interim Publisher of CBC News, Jennifer McGuire, responded: “Certainly, the Prime Minister's remarks are important and they were broadcast on both CBC networks. But as you suggested, CBC has an obligation to all Canadians. While CBC Newsworld is designed to have the flexibility to carry developing news stories like this one, CBC's main channel has a fixed schedule of programs intended to appeal to a cross-section of viewers with a broad range of interests.” She also pointed out that the commercial break had been cancelled in order to extend the time period as late as possible. You rejected her explanation, saying that you could only “infer that CBC's main network commitment to anything other than being crass and commercial extends only as far as a one hour feed from Newsworld.” You asked for a review.

REVIEW

Scheduling issues are generally outside my purview except when they somehow intersect with journalistic policy. The policy that might have some applicability to this issue is contained in Appendix B of the CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices under the heading Broadcasts of National Importance:

Certain events of national importance warrant full or extended live television coverage on the networks, including pre-emption of other programming. These events are:

Opening of Parliament

Leaders' Day in the Throne Speech Debate
Budget Speech
Federal-Provincial First Ministers' conferences
State occasions: Royal visits, State funerals, major commemorative occasions
Bona fide leadership conventions of the major federal political parties

There are other events which may be of sufficient importance that it would be appropriate to accord them live coverage, involving pre-emption of programming. Occasions of this type include:

Major parliamentary debates
Policy conventions of the major federal political parties
Interprovincial First Ministers' conferences

The policy goes on to say that the French and English networks should work in tandem and that when the events are political in nature, care must be taken to provide appropriate coverage of other points of view.

In this case, the prorogation of Parliament is not specifically on the list, although since it has not happened before under these circumstances, it would have been difficult for policy writers to foresee it. Certainly Mr. Harper's and the Governor General's actions that day were of great interest and importance to the public. Although Newsworld is widely available, it is not universally available so the CBC, from time to time, uses the main network to broadcast such events of great importance as well as bulletins and other special broadcasts. I think it is clear that this unprecedented Parliamentary event deserved special coverage.

A related question is how that coverage is “framed.” Through long experience I have found that audiences will accept twists and turns in a broadcast special if they are kept informed. Abrupt entrances and exits leave people feeling that their needs are not being taken into account. Even if this event does not fit the category of “Broadcasts of National Importance” as defined in the policy, it was, and should have been, treated as a special broadcast of extraordinary interest. Ms. McGuire rightly points out that the main network of the CBC has broader obligations than news coverage. Newsworld was created specifically to allow the Corporation to widen its coverage and be ready to broadcast any significant event at length and in context. It is a truly difficult task to decide what material merits wider coverage, particularly at substantial cost to the main network. Many of us might not like that equation, but the equation exists: the News Department does not run the network; network officers do.

Since the event was not deemed to fit the policy, any coverage on the main CBC Network should be done in a manner that keeps viewers informed. It appears that in the time zone you reference, the broadcast overlapped with a scheduled CBC News program.

However, it is not at all clear that the viewer of that program would understand exactly what was happening, particularly when the program ended, in their eyes, abruptly.

The producers involved, knowing that an event of importance was taking place, managed to cancel the commercial break that normally comes after the News program and before the beginning of the next, extending the live coverage by several minutes. However, it appears there was no real warning to viewers on CBC that the coverage was ending or that it was continuing on Newsworld. The latter, of course, would be of little comfort to those who do not have access to Newsworld.

Conclusion

News management should have clearer policy on specials of such importance. While I cannot, nor should not, dictate network scheduling, I think I can speak for the viewers in wanting, at a minimum, information on which to base their viewing of such an important event.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman