Stéphane Dion interview

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The National's report about Liberal leader Stéphane Dion's difficult interview with CTV in Halifax

You wrote originally in the midst of the federal election campaign last fall to complain about an item on The National. The item concerned the controversy around Stéphane Dion's appearance on a CTV program in Halifax. Mr. Dion had difficulty in understanding the question posed by the program's host and asked to start again. After re-starting, there were some further difficulties and, in the end, the program ran the full interview, even the parts before the “re-start”.

After Conservative Leader Stephen Harper made an issue of the broadcast late in the day, The National carried a story about it, including a clip from the broadcast.

You wrote that you were “ashamed” the CBC ran the clip of Mr. Dion. You said that the CBC “completely failed to provide the highest standards of journalistic ethics.”

The then-interim Publisher of CBC News, Jennifer McGuire, responded that “CBC News has a responsibility to broadcast stories that are significant, to present them fairly and accurately, affording Canadians the opportunity and the information they need to make up their own minds about the story's nature and the quality of the views expressed. That is what we did here.”

You rejected her explanation, adding that the matter was “an insult to your viewers and to the CBC itself.” You asked for a review. I am sorry that your complaint was not dealt with sooner.


Coverage of election campaigns is one of the most difficult and important tasks any journalistic organization performs. For an organization that holds itself to the policies laid out in CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices, the task is even more tricky.

During a campaign, good journalists, while always on the look-out for new developments, try to maintain a watchful eye on matters that could be concocted by one side or the other in order to swing the election in a decisive way. I have to confess that in earlier years, as head of both CBC Radio and CBC Television News, I have had responsibility for supervising such coverage. I and my colleagues took seriously our obligation to be fair in our coverage, while never backing away from serious and pertinent election issues. Such decisions were never taken lightly, and more recent conversations and reviews have shown that they are not taken lightly now.

The instant case is a difficult one. As a broadcast journalist for more than 35 years, I have seen or participated in an uncountable number of arrangements with participants in programs, whether politicians or “civilians.” Ground rules are set and participants try to adhere to them as best they can. I am aware of occasions when a participant got off to a bad start in one way or another and asked for a “restart.” Assuming the program was not “live,” the request was, in most cases, granted. However, this review is not of CTV's decision. They are responsible for their decisions and perfectly capable of defending them. I am merely trying to point out that the circumstances would not be unfamiliar to me.

So, CTV's decision was its own and, for better or worse, the broadcast became an issue of interest due to the actions of Mr. Harper. It is clear that he was acting in self-interest, not a bizarre notion during an election campaign. I am reasonably certain through long experience that had the Liberal Party uncovered a similar tape of Mr. Harper it would do everything it could to make it public. One can readily think back to the audiotape of Mr. Harper talking with a journalist concerning possible arrangements relating to Chuck Cadman.

The choice for the CBC after the broadcast and after Mr. Harper played the tape and made it an “issue” was whether it could ignore the tape. It could not readily ignore the story—the erstwhile Prime Minister had made it an issue—but could it ignore the underlying matter on which Mr. Harper based his case?

There are many occasions when broadcast journalists are faced with unpleasant tasks: deciding whether it is necessary to broadcast relevant material even if it is in dubious taste, possibly hateful or violent or embarrassing to an individual. CBC journalistic policy calls on journalists to avoid such material, except when there is a legitimate public interest involved and there is no better way to put the story in context.

A story reporting on Mr. Harper's view that Mr. Dion was not up to the task of being Prime Minister (presumably because of his difficulty in understanding the question) would have been almost incomprehensible without the illustrative material. The programmers decided to run the material to put the matter in context.

You feel that airing the item did irreparable harm to Mr. Dion. However, your statement that the Conservative and Liberal poll numbers “reversed” immediately thereafter does not hold up under examination. In fact, Mr. Dion's poll numbers stayed rather steady—some up marginally, some down marginally. The biggest loss in the poll numbers took place a month before, in mid- September, when a large gap opened between the parties that the Liberals were unable to close.

Also, while saying that broadcasting the clip harmed Mr. Dion, you cite the expert panel on “Politics” that did not endorse that view. On a personal note, when I saw the actual clip, rather than the reporting of it, I had sympathy for Mr. Dion's attempt to understand the rather complex, subjunctive question posed by the interviewer. As someone who has to occasionally work in a second language (French) I could easily see why Mr. Dion did not understand it. The reaction of the experts, as well as the lack of movement in the polls, would indicate that the public, too, did not much credit the view that the interview was fatal to his prospects.

I guess one could argue that journalists could ignore Mr. Harper's comments and the interview segment, but I do not know anyone involved in the craft of journalism who would make that case. Mr. Harper's view, in the middle of an election campaign, was “news” and the only way to understand that news (as I found, personally) was to see the clip.

Conclusion

There was no violation of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman