Resolution debated at Conservative Party policy convention

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Coverage of a resolution debated at the Conservative Party of Canada policy convention; description of the resolution as “moving the party to the right”

You wrote in November, 2008, to complain about coverage of one of the resolutions debated at the Conservative Party of Canada policy convention on the weekend of November 15-16, 2008. You wrote that “one of the resolutions called for halting the assault on free speech and free press currently being conducted by ‘Human Rights Tribunals' in Canada.” You went on to say that at least two services of the CBC immediately described this as a “moving the party to the right.” You said that the effect was that “the CBC has actively opposed HRC reform, has biased discussion of the HRCs and has unfairly characterized HRC critics within the Conservative Party.”

Jane Anido, Director of CBC Radio News Programming, responded that the story on CBC.ca mentioned two resolutions and added “the resolutions are not binding for Harper or his Conservative caucus, but they allowed the party faithful to reaffirm their right-of-centre policy leanings.”

The CBC Radio story, a brief “copy” story said: “Conservatives have nudged Canada's ruling party back to the right just a month after Prime Minister Stephen Harper won another minority mandate with a campaign that hugged the political centre.” It went on to mention the human rights commission clause, as well as others creating new charges for killing unborn children, tough anti-crime measures and income splitting for couples with children.

Ms. Anido went on to say that “protection of the free expression guaranteed all Canadians should be a matter of equal and vital interest to those on the “left” and “right,” but these days, the issue seems to be of far greater concern to those on the “right” who feel it is their rights being attacked.” She said “for the party to adopt a highly popular resolution to limit the HRC's powers may be reasonably seen as suggesting the party…is ‘reaffirming right-of- centre policy leanings.' She concluded that “neither story suggests that this is any more than ‘reaffirming' the party's view or as the radio story said ‘nudg(ing) it back toward the right after the election.”

You rejected Ms. Anido's explanation and asked for a review. I am sorry that the backlog created by the political turmoil in Canada and the U.S. and the conflict in the Middle East has delayed this response.

Over the years, CBC journalistic management has argued forcefully that terms such as “right' and “left” are too often used as shorthand when situations are more complex.

At the same time, every writer trying to digest complicated information into a brief story seeks ways to convey ideas swiftly and simply. Some issues lend themselves to rough dichotomy: those clearly espoused by more conservative elements and clearly opposed by more liberal elements (and I do not mean parties).

It is also important that anything asserted by a CBC journalist as a fact must be able to prove its truth. Other assertions should be attributed to those who make them. For example: “John Doe, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, says that the party is moving in a more conservative direction with various resolutions…”

However, the issue of the human rights commissions' entrance into the field of free speech and journalism does not fit so easily on the “right/left” spectrum. Ms. Anido noted that she did not recall the issue being debated at recent conventions of the Liberal and New Democratic Parties; nor do I. I would suggest that it is not at all clear that the issue breaks down as a “right” and “left” issue. She is correct, of course, that the two most prominent people caught up in the controversy, Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant, espouse ideas that can readily be termed conservative. But there are those of more liberal persuasion who might view with alarm the notion of a human rights commission test for apparently legal speech.

It would have been clearer to identify those resolutions that were clearly brought forward by more conservative delegates and supported by like-minded people (and which would be opposed by people of a more liberal persuasion).

As I mentioned, CBC news management has consistently resisted the notion of easy “right/left” divisions. I have previously upheld their interpretation of policy and good sense on this issue.

I can find no evidence that CBC News has in any way opposed HRC reform, or attempted to bias the discussion of the issue.

Conclusion

The items failed to provide appropriate context, the brevity of the item notwithstanding. The easy shorthand of “right/left” has previously been found wanting by CBC news management. Writers and editors should be reminded of those guidelines.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman