Interview with General Walter Natynczyk

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Susan Ormiston's interview with General Walter Natynczyk, Chief of the Defence Staff

You wrote initially in February, 2010, to complain about an interview conducted by journalist Susan Ormiston with General Walter Natynczyk, Chief of the Defence Staff. The interview was done shortly after the revelation of serious charges against Colonel Russell Williams, the commander of CFB Trenton, the largest air force base in the country. Col. Williams had been arrested on charges relating to two murders, and two counts of sexual assault, forcible confinement and home invasion.

General Natynczyk had been in Trenton to talk to base personnel about the matter and about the necessity of carrying on with their duties. After that talk, Ms. Ormiston had a separate interview with the General.

You questioned her demeanour and the thrust of the interview: “Did she really believe that General Natynczyk is responsible for the sexual assaults and murders committed by one of his 90,000 employees?” You said that “the CBC spews anything anti-Canadian, anti-conservative with a socialist and separatist spin”. You demanded that Ms. Ormiston apologize and that she should be fired.

Mark Harrison, the Executive Producer of The National responded. He said that it was evident that there were a lot of questions on people's minds: “If true, how could a man in such a responsible position, a respected officer in a close-knit, controlled and disciplined environment, have carried out such heinous crimes…How could he advance up the chain of command without leaving any clues?” He acknowledged that if the charges are proven, Col. Williams alone bears that responsibility, but he pointed out that Gen. Natynczyk is broadly responsible for the organization and that Col. Williams was not just one of 90,000, but a very senior one of 100 air force colonels.

Mr. Harrison said that the context of Ms. Ormiston's interview was procedure: how does the military vet its senior commanders and could anything have been done to spot a potential problem. He said that Gen. Natynczyk “appeared sincere and answered (the questions) well.” Her final question, clearly following on from questions about procedure and vetting, was “Do you take responsibility?” He answered that he was responsible for everyone in the military.

You thanked Mr. Harrison for his response, but added that “my complaint stands against the CBC and (its) ongoing systemic left-wing bias. Bias against the Harper government and the CBC's pro Liberal or/and NDP ideology.” You also asked for information on the number of complaints received on this matter and requested a review.


The job of a journalist, a CBC journalist in particular, is to ask those questions that might be on the minds of a significant number of people in the community on matters of significant public interest. The common expression is “without fear or favour.”

Upon review, I found the interview with General Natynczyk illuminating on several grounds. One was the willingness of the Chief of the Defense Staff to make himself available for questioning on the matter. He showed an admirable openness and candour in his handling of questions. We should remember that this interview followed a story about his talk to the service personnel at CFB Trenton. I think it fair to say that he demonstrated leadership qualities we can all admire.

At the same time, during the Ormiston interview, he acknowledged that the Forces did not have the resources to do the kind of psychological profiling that might (or might not) have aided senior command in spotting potential problems in the chain of command. It would be naïve in the extreme to view the military as just another “company” with 90,000 employees. It is, in fact, a highly structured organization with unique qualities of command and loyalty. The society rightly accords them special status and arms them to carry out their duties.

An analogous organization might be a highly structured church like the Roman Catholic Church. Reporters would have been deemed remiss in their duties if bishops were not questioned about the promotion to positions of authority of individuals who ended up preying on their congregations.

In this case, it appears to me that General Natynczyk understood the nature of the question and its context. I think many civilians had the question in their minds: how could something like this happen in a highly disciplined, structured organization. Of course, we may never have a full answer; indeed, there may not be an answer.

I have to say that I cannot conceive of how Ms. Ormiston's questions concerning vetting and responsibility in the Canadian Forces amounts to bias against the current Prime Minister, or support for Liberal/NDP ideology.

On your question about the number of complaints, this office received 20 pieces of correspondence in addition to yours. You were the only person who requested a review of the matter.

Conclusion

The interview was well within the standards set in CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman