Nova Scotia Auditor General's report

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Reports about the Nova Scotia Auditor General's report concerning the appropriateness of expenditures by MLAs

p>You wrote initially in February, 2010, concerning a series of reports on the supper hour news program in Halifax about a report from the provincial Auditor General. That report dealt with a raft of expenditures by members of the provincial legislature from all parties. The Auditor General termed them “inappropriate.”

You wrote to say that, “The local host Tom Murphy has…well overstepped his reporting responsibilities and has embarked on a witch-hunt against the local elected members of our government. He has by his reports insinuated that all members of the Nova Scotia Government from all parties are thieves and charlatans while paying particular attention to the Premier of the province.”

You went on to accuse Mr. Murphy and, presumably, his colleagues “of deliberately attempting to sensationalize the story and that he clearly embellishes the facts but that his unrelenting reporting only fans the flames of discontent in the province.” You were particularly upset by a segment that dealt with two teenaged girls who had written a song about the issue.

Janet Irwin, the Senior Regional Manager for News and Current Affairs in the Maritimes, responded. She said that prominent coverage of the Premier's actions and views were appropriate, given that “he has been elected to lead this province. Taxpayers wanted to know his thoughts on the content of the AG's report, and on how the system could be changed, among other things. These are questions we put to him.”

She also said that she found the segment with the two young women “newsworthy,” illustrating the interest in the issue across the province.

She went on to point out that you had not cited the inaccuracies you said you found in the coverage.

You responded, asking me to review the matter, saying that “most of my concern rests on things that were not done by the CBC…I simply accuse the CBC of doing only a half of a job and if anything is inappropriate it is the way the CBC handled this important story.”


To put the policy questions in context, I will lay out the fundamental principles that are supposed to guide CBC journalism:

JOURNALISTIC PRINCIPLES
Information programs must reflect established journalistic principles:

Accuracy
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.

Integrity
The information is truthful, not distorted to justify a conclusion. Broadcasters do not take advantage of their power to present a personal bias.

Fairness
The information reports or reflects equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view; it deals fairly and ethically with persons, institutions, issues and events.

Application of these principles will achieve the optimum objectivity and balance that must characterize the CBC's information programs.

I reviewed fully over two dozen items that appeared on the program in the immediate aftermath of the Auditor General's report. I also sampled some other media coverage.

As for the first principle, you did not cite, nor could I find, false information in the CBC reports. You mentioned several times that the activities that the Auditor General cited were not “illegal.” I noted that the reports regularly mentioned that fact. I also noted that the members of the legislature who came to be named were all given an opportunity to respond to the Auditor General's report, as were the leaders of all the major parties.

It struck me, as someone removed from the scene, that these were interesting stories about significant issues. Other jurisdictions in North American are also dealing with the appropriateness of expenditures in the public realm. It should be borne in mind that it was not the CBC that first highlighted these expenditures as “inappropriate,” but the Auditor General. In the end, your complaint centred on things that you felt were absent from the items. Obviously, it is difficult in policy terms to review an absence of something, unless that absence involved a misleading of the audience in some way. After viewing the dozens of items in those first weeks, it is certainly possible to think of additional avenues of inquiry. However, the material as presented did not appear to suffer from not having immediately pursued those additional lines of inquiry.

Your comments about the treatment of the Premier strike me as somewhat odd: he is the leader of the Province as well as his party. He seemed to understand that in both roles he had an obligation to deal with the issues raised by the Auditor's General's report and the fallout from it.

Journalists would be less than diligent if they did not pursue aggressively his views on his personal conduct, the conduct of his party's members and that of the legislature as a whole.

As for the young singing duo, had that been one of few items on the spending story, I would agree that there might be a problem. However, within the total volume and scope of the stories (even if limited, by your lights) the item was not in violation of the CBC's policies, nor of good journalistic practice.

I think, perhaps, your concerns about how the public views public servants might be better addressed to the members of the Legislature rather than to the journalists covering legitimate news stories.

I should add a note about “style.” I did observe that the program adopts a particular approach to presentation, with more informal introductions to reporters and some limited interchanges between the host and the journalists. The program also uses a writing style that emphasizes what is happening to “your money” and similar tropes that have become popular in broadcast journalism. As I have noted in a previous review, this is not a development that I personally welcome, as I have found that it can easily slip into trivialization and/or hype.

However, having watched the more than two dozen items involved in this complaint, I find that, whatever my personal taste, the program has operated within the parameters of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Conclusion

While there are always further avenues of inquiry that might be pursued, the material as presented was not in violation of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman