Comment about Danny Williams

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


Complaint from The Hon. Danny Williams, Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador

You wrote to complain of a statement made by Peter Gullage, Executive Producer of CBC News in Newfoundland and Labrador, in the course of a column written for the National Post on February 4, 2009. In the column he wrote: “Trying to get someone to talk openly and feely from the business community, and from inside the government, is tougher than previous times. People have a fear that Danny will find out. That sounds kind of like a Beijing sort of thing, but it's there, and our reporters have come across it.

Subsequently, Mr. Gullage apologized for those remarks, claiming that his comments were “impromptu, hyperbolic, and, I believed, so wildly overdrawn that there would be little chance it could be understood as anything more than what it was intended to be: humorous and colourful.”

Subsequently, you also received a note from Jennifer McGuire, at the time the Interim Publisher of CBC News, who wrote: “I sincerely regret that you were offended.”

You were unsatisfied with the responses and asked me to review the matter, saying that the answers “serve to illustrate what I believe is a bias on (Mr. Gullage's) part in (his) role as Executive Producer.”

My deepest apologies for the delay. I mistakenly believed that the matter had been settled between you, the CBC and Mr. Gullage.

In the course of their work, CBC journalists, whether directly reporting or appearing as commentators, must be careful to present information and viewpoints in a fair manner. Mr. Gullage was appearing essentially as a commentator, an appropriate role for someone of his experience. While CBC policy would recognize that Mr. Gullage may be qualified to draw conclusions about government actions, policy is also clear that this should be done based on accurate information, and be fair to those whose work is being judged.

Making the observation that reporters have found it difficult to get people to speak on the record is not a violation of policy. As a long-time reporter and now Executive Producer, Mr. Gullage would be seen as someone who is able to make judgments on the affairs of the day.

While I appreciate that Mr. Gullage did not mean his reference to Beijing to be taken literally, nor do I think any reasonable member of the audience would do so, hyperbole is always a risky tool for journalists to employ. In this case, in my view, it is both unfair and unreasonable to compare your government, in the lively world of Newfoundland politics, with that of an autocracy.

Although I have not had the pleasure of meeting you, my experience with Newfoundland political figures extends back to interviews with Joseph Smallwood in 1970 and extends forward from there for a couple of decades. It has been my experience that Newfoundland leaders have been quite capable of dealing well with the cut and thrust in the kinds of political debates that have taken place in Newfoundland over that time.

Had this note been written before Mr. Gullage and Ms. McGuire apologized, I would have recommended that he and the CBC do so. Mr. Gullage appears to understand that his remark was inappropriate. Making the observation that people appeared disinclined to speak publicly is not inappropriate for a senior journalist and would not appear to be an indication of “bias” but of a reasonable, if arguable, conclusion based on experience.

It appears to me that the CBC and Mr. Gullage have taken appropriate action in the wake of his inappropriate metaphor.

Again, I am truly sorry that my assumption of settlement was incorrect.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman