At Issue panel

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

“Biased nature” of The National's At Issue panel

You wrote to complain about what you felt was the “biased nature” of The National's At Issue panel on November 19, 2008.

The acting Executive Producer of The National, Mark Harrison, replied that the program sought out a range of perspectives on the At Issue panel, but the application of the notion of “left” and “right” was, perhaps, not the clearest guiding principle that could be chosen. He cited recent articles claiming that the left/right metaphor is misleading.

He also made reference to a previous review that I had done on the subject of At Issue in which I had said that, in my viewing, the segments were less about the issues themselves and more about the political impact of the issues.

You were dissatisfied with Mr. Harrison's response and asked me to review the matter.

REVIEW

Over the last half year I have screened a wide range of At Issue panels, including the episode of November 19th. The first thing I noted, as I have mentioned, is that the panels are not really about issues, but about politics. So the discussion, although coming from people with different perspectives on the underlying themes, really concerned the political impacts.

The panel appeared to be selected to reflect a knowledge of national and regional political strategy and tactics, as well as some intelligent reflection on the impact of the issues. It strikes me that The National was trying to encourage the kind of discussion that used to take place on Peter Gzowski's radio programs—the Kierans, Camp, Lewis panels. Those three did not cover the widest gamut of political views—in your formulation, perhaps moderate “left” to moderate “right”—but insight and “chemistry” were important factors.

On the At Issue panel, the basic three are Andrew Coyne, a well known and articulate writer of a generally conservative persuasion, late of the National Post, currently with Macleans; I have noted in reading and listening that Mr. Coyne is not doctrinaire on all issues; Chantal Hébert, the highly regarded columnist for the Toronto Star—you

characterize her views as “centre right” but I find her to be more a journalist than commentator, although her employers are generally considered liberal (I might add that a significant number of complainants from the conservative side of the spectrum would be astonished to hear her described as “centre right”); and Allan Gregg, somewhat more difficult to categorize—I first knew him as a polling expert for the Progressive Conservatives of Joe Clark, but I would submit that his personal views today are a bit harder to characterize (I am reminded of Dalton Camp's positions in his later years).

From time to time, other voices are added for particular regional or topic reasons. You said that too many of the guests are from CanWest papers. In fact, although you did not mention it in your note, in the broadcast of November 19th one of the guests was Dan Leger who works for an independently owned paper, the Chronicle Herald in Halifax. A fourth member was from The Gazette in Montreal, a CanWest paper.

However, the underlying theme of the segments is not the correctness of the topic at hand, but how politicians, national and regional, are dealing with it. For that, the various panelists would seem to be well-placed to reflect on political decisions actually being made. I did note that the panelists that evening all seemed to agree that something had to be done about inter-provincial trade barriers, although the agreement between British Columbia and Alberta (TILMA) was not referenced directly.

That being said, it is clear in CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices that its information programs must seek out the widest range of views on issues of public concern. If the At Issue panel were the only source of information on broad policy issues, there might be an argument for its restructuring. However, any fair observation of The National, not to mention the dozens of hours of news and current affairs programming on CBC Television and CBC Newsworld, would indicate that effort is made to cover a wide range of issues and opinions. At Issue, given its nature as a program segment focused on politics, cannot be asked to bear the burden of full issue discussion. I can also note that it is one of the most popular segments on The National. You may want it to be a different segment with different people, but that is not a sound basis for me to judge the item. I have to judge it on what it purports to be and on the coverage that surrounds it on The National and other programs.

Conclusion

The At Issue panel is not a broad discussion of issues, but a more narrowly focused group of political observers. It should be judged on what it is, not on what one might want it to be. It is a useful and informative segment with insight into mainly national political affairs. I can find no violation of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman