H1N1 outbreak

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Report about the H1N1 outbreak

You wrote initially in late October to complain of an item on The National. In it, Peter Mansbridge interviewed Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. David Butler-Jones, about the H1N1 outbreak. You complained that Mr. Mansbridge, in the course of the interview, asked Dr. Butler-Jones, “what can you say to calm the fears…” You said it was a “leading question based on the premise that any fears out there are not justified.”

Mark Harrison, the Executive Producer of The National, replied. He said that the interview followed an item that indicated there were fears among some that there was an insufficient supply of vaccine. He said “there are fears. There is anxiety. There is even, as Mr. Mansbridge said, ‘a certain degree of panic.'” Since the story established that, he argued, Mr. Mansbridge was not “suggesting that there should be no fears or that fears are not justified, but simply asking the country's chief public health officer what he is doing to allay or lessen their intensity.” Mr. Harrison added that, in that context, it was not a leading question.

You were not satisfied with the response and asked me to review the matter.

This is a fairly straightforward situation. The public was clearly in a state of anxiety about the possible pandemic outbreak and the perceived problems with the supply of vaccine. You claim that “the suggestion that the fears should be CALMED (sic), that the interviewee should say something that would cause them to subside or diminish, is, with all due respect, an attitude which is propagandistic, because it goes beyond the facts and directs the person answering.”

I find that the claim does not stand up to analysis. The expert guest was free to answer in any way he chose: to deny there was any fear, to dismiss the concerns of those who were fearful, or to offer factual information. He chose the latter. Mr. Mansbridge did not ask him to dismiss those fears; in fact, he advanced it as a fact. You may believe that fearful people should not be offered information that, while not dismissing their concerns, might help to deal with them. But that would not be a useful position for a journalistic organization to take.

Mr. Mansbridge's question was not “leading”, but an opportunity for Canada's chief public health officer to respond on the record to an evident problem and help people deal with the problem.

Conclusion

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

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman