Documentary about CSIS

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


The National's documentary about the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) (Complaint from Canada Association for the Learning and Preserving of WWII History in Asia)

I am writing in regard to your July 22, 2010, request for a review by the Office of the Ombudsman into the two-part documentary report on CBC's The National concerning the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and assertions by the agency's director.

Your complaint arises from the June 21 and 22 reports on The National in which CSIS director Richard Fadden indicated there were municipal politicians in British Columbia and cabinet ministers in two provinces “whom we think are under at least the general influence of a foreign government.” While he did not identify those politicians or the foreign government, he did not directly deny China's involvement when questioned by anchor Peter Mansbridge. Fadden also offered that Chinese government support of university-located Confucius Institutes generated demonstrations against Canadian government policies toward China.

Additionally, former senior correspondent Brian Stewart reported that 20 to 25 foreign spy agencies operated in Canada to seek information and attempt to influence policy. Stewart cited studies and a published book, Nest of Spies, by former CSIS agent Michel Juneau-Katsuya.

Your complaint, in broad outline, was that these reports deserve a countervailing view because, left unchallenged and so general in nature, they cast aspersions on all Chinese Canadian political figures. You raise an important question on the obligations of a news operation to counter assertions, claims and arguments. A particular challenge is how news operations deal with news- making assertions by public figures and whether they ought to be left to stand because of the prominence of the person making such assertions — in this instance, an official who has an exceptional grasp of information concerning public security.

CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices handbook sets out several guiding principles and operational approaches in this context. While its programs generally strive for equitable presentation of views on an issue, they can make an exception as long as an individual has “demonstrable expertise” on the subject matter.

The handbook is firm, also, that “there is no right of reply” to automatically and mathematically balance an assertion. Rather, it compels remedial action “if it has been established that significant unfairness has occurred.” It says: “Balance is not to be confused with the concept of right of reply. The CBC must itself be responsible for determining when a significant imbalance has occurred, and what remedial action must be taken.”

In reviewing this complaint, I had to assess if the CSIS director and the former CSIS agents had demonstrable expertise. I have concluded they do. I also had to assess if their remarks were significantly unfair. Until anyone brings forward evidence to the contrary, I have to conclude they are not. While remarks may have stirred controversy, they were not disproven. Moreover, carrying the controversial factual assertions of experts is not an indication of any editorial view of CBC's journalism.

I note in your correspondence with Michael Gruzuk, the acting executive producer of The National, a commitment to talk with the organization you represent as further stories develop on this matter. As a result I am confident your viewpoint will be taken into account as CBC proceeds.

I conclude there was no violation of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman