Conservative Party flyers

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

“Conservative Flyer Anti-Semitic?” -- phrase across the bottom of the screen during Power & Politics panel discussion about the mailing of Conservative Party flyers

You first wrote to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) to register a complaint about the November 18, 2009, edition of Power and Politics with Evan Solomon. The CBSC mistakenly forwarded the complaint to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) which, in turn, forwarded the complaint to Cynthia Kinch, Director of CBC News Network at that time.

The complaint concerns an interview segment on Power and Politics. Conducted by Mr. Solomon with three members of Parliament, the panel discussion focused on the general question of the mailing of Conservative Party political flyers. These flyers are known as the so-called “ten percenters” because MPs were permitted to spend 10% of their office expenses on flyers to be sent to voters outside their own constituencies. (Parliament voted to rescind the allocation on March 15, 2010 by a vote of 140-137).1

Your specific complaint concerned the title of the segment. Across the bottom of the screen, the phrase: “Conservative Flyer Anti-Semitic?”

You were not satisfied with Ms. Kinch's response. As you stated in an email to her, “How can a flyer that accuses the Liberals of being anti-Semitic, be anti-Semitic?” You claim that the CBC used a misleading title “…to discredit the Conservative Party.”

I would like to acknowledge the substantial contribution of Jeffrey Dvorkin, Rogers Communications Distinguished Visiting Chair in Journalism at Ryerson University, in the preparation of this review.


The issue of the so-called “ten percenters” has been a long-standing political issue.2 The opposition parties have stated their belief that the Conservatives have used their larger Parliamentary caucus to target specific opposition MPs on what appear to be vulnerable political and emotional issues. The opposition parties say the flyers are unfair, inaccurate and intrusive.

Both Liberals and Conservatives have engaged in this version of “attack politics:”

  • Conservatives last fall distributed a flyer in ridings with large Jewish populations, which inferred that Liberals are anti-Semitic.
  • They sent another into Bloc Quebecois ridings, suggesting the party is soft on pedophiles.
  • They sent another into rural ridings targeting opposition MPs deemed to be supportive of the controversial long-gun registry, even though a number of the MPs were actually opposed.
  • Liberals sent a flyer into ridings with large aboriginal populations accusing the government of providing body bags instead of vaccine, during last fall's H1N1 flu scare.3

Liberal MP for Mount Royal, Irwin Cotler, objected to a flyer sent to his constituents that compared the Conservative Party's pro-Israel approach to that of the Liberal Party.

On November 30, 2009, House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken found that the flyer had damaged Mr. Cotler's reputation and credibility by implying that Mr. Cotler supported a party that was anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. The implication according to Mr. Cotler, a longtime supporter of Israel, was that he must be anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. Mr. Cotler immediately asked that the Commons Committee of Procedure and House Affairs rule again on whether the flyers violated his rights as an MP.4

On March 15, 2010, the House voted to put a stop to the practice of mailing taxpayer- funded political flyers to voters outside their own ridings, with only the Conservatives voting to retain the practice.

Mr. Cotler and other opposition MPs have stated that the flyers that have targeted Jewish voters are essentially anti-Semitic because they falsely accuse the Liberal Party in general and Mr. Cotler (who is Jewish) in particular of supporting anti-Semitic and anti-Israel policies.

The use of the headline “Conservative Flyer Anti-Semitic?” is a provocative headline and one that is both intriguing and misleading. Allegations of anti-Semitism (whether directed at a party or an individual), like similar accusations of racism, sexism, etc., are often easy to proclaim and difficult to defuse.

In this instance, the use of the term “anti-Semitism” in the headline appeared gratuitous and inflammatory since the subsequent discussion among the panel never directly addressed that specific issue. The panelists spent most of their time trying to assert which party was more pro-Israel.

The only panelist to raise the correct issue was NDP MP Libby Davies who tried to bring the discussion back to the question of how the Conservatives and the Liberals are engaged in the strategic use of attack ads.

Indeed, Mr. Solomon admitted toward the end of the discussion that “the real debate here is on the rules (governing) the ten percenters.” The question of whether the flyer in question is anti-Semitic is never resolved or directly addressed by any of the panel, including the host.

You are correct in your assumption that the headline was both misleading and inflammatory.

But this phrasing was not, in my opinion, an attempt to discredit the Conservatives. Rather it was simply a dubious way to increase viewer interest in a rather dry subject (Parliamentary funding for flyers) by inserting an emotional issue (anti-Semitism) that simply was not there.

Ms. Kinch's letter is correct as far as it goes, but it never directly addresses the concerns you raised.

The CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices document states the following requirement:

The information conforms with reality and is not in any way misleading or false. This demands not only careful and thorough research but a disciplined use of language and production techniques, including visuals. 5

The program failed to follow this critical aspect of CBC journalism.

Conclusion

The use of “hot button” phrases by television production units as “teases” to engage the audience needs to be very closely monitored. Allegations of racism and/or anti-Semitism are highly volatile and are easily used by partisans to heighten community anxieties for political gain. As the public broadcaster, the CBC has an obligation to provide information that is reasoned, proportional and placed in context.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman


1 The Canadian Press, March 17, 2010, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/mps-vote-to-trash-ten- percenters/article1502697/

2 Galloway, Gloria, Unmasking the Tenpercenters, Globe and Mail, December 1, 2009, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/mps-vote-to-trash-ten- percenters/article1502697/

3 http://www.cbc.ca/politics/insidepolitics/2009/11/the-flyer-fight.html

4 The Monitor, December 7, 2009, http://www.themonitor.ca/Faith/2009-12-07/article- 635258/Cotler-wants-apology-for-Tory-leaflets-insinuating-Liberal-antiSemitism/1

5 http://cbc-radio-canada.ca/docs/policies/journalistic/journoprincipals.shtml