Possible involvement of NRA in long-gun registry debate

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Report about possible involvement of the National Rifle Association in the debate over the long-gun registry

Twenty-one people wrote to complain about an item on The National on September 13, 2010. Taken in context, it was presented as an investigative report on the possible involvement of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the on-going debate in Canada over the long-gun registry.

Most of the complainants felt that there was no “news” in the story; no evidence of NRA involvement in Canada, save a 10-year-old video produced by the NRA and aired on a station that was carried on many Canadian cable outlets.

The Executive Editor of CBC News, Esther Enkin, responded, pointing out that the CBC had done, in her words, “hours of thoughtful, thorough and innovative coverage” that carried a wide spectrum of views.” She said, in effect, that the report was a reasonable summary of what the NRA had been doing in relation to the Canadian issue.

One person was unsatisfied with the response and asked for a review.

It is probably useful to review the relevant policies:

11. INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM (excerpted)

Investigative journalism must be practiced within the discipline imposed by journalistic principles and the policies which flow from them. While all journalism is, in a wide sense, investigative, the term can be particularly applied to the vigorous, intense examination of institutions or activities which concern public policy or touch upon the lives of a large part of the population. Investigative journalism should bear in mind the relative importance of an issue and should not be exclusively concerned with the revelation of errors, injustice or wrongdoing. Minor matters should not be treated when more significant topics warrant attention.

This is a particularly sensitive type of journalism, which can have a powerful effect upon the public mind and, consequently, upon the livelihood and well-being of individuals and the viability of public institutions and private enterprises. It therefore calls for heightened skills and the maintenance of strict standards of accuracy. Investigative journalism should not be conducted without adequate resources and the time needed for exhaustive research… In investigative programming, in the interest of fairness, opportunity should be given for all parties directly concerned to state their case. In circumstances where research reveals the necessity to conduct interviews in which individuals are to be held accountable for their actions or those of their organizations in a matter of public interest, while the purpose of the interview should be disclosed in broad terms in advance, information can be divulged and questions can be asked in ways that ensure candid and unrehearsed answers are obtained for the public. The item at issue was a relatively brief report by Diana Swain, The National's senior investigative correspondent. The introduction to the piece said this: Peter Mansbridge: “It's one of the most influential lobby groups in America, and now The National has learned the NRA has been hard at work on this side of the border trying to pull the trigger on Canada's long-gun registry….The debate over Canada's gun registry has been highly political in advance of next week's parliamentary vote and it's been highly divisive, but if you think it only involves Canadians, you would be wrong. A powerful American lobby group has found its way into this. Diana Swain is our senior investigative correspondent. Diana?

Diana Swain: “Peter, the National Rifle Association, or the NRA, might be the most influential and most controversial lobby group in the United States. It advocates for the fewest possible controls on gun ownership, but it also sees its mandate as fighting those controls around the world, and we've learned the NRA isn't just watching the Canadian debate. It's been actively involved in trying to influence the outcome.” What followed was a relatively straight-forward account of the circumstances surrounding the ten-year old video, some quotations from Tony Bernardo, the director of the Canadian Institute of Legislative Action, a vigorous opponent of the long-gun registry, and, significantly, an interview with the former Attorney General of Ontario, Michael Bryant. I think it safe to say that, at this point, any interested viewer would have, metaphorically speaking, leaned forward to hear what the former head of the legal system in Ontario would have to say. What he said was: “I got elected in 1999 and I became aware soon after of the NRA's involvement in the debate, not in a huge way but in a significant way.” And, later: “I think for a lot of people in Canada, if they knew that the NRA was part of the effort to get rid of the gun registry, they would think more about their views, and they would think, “Well, wait a minute, I thought that this was about, you know, wasting taxpayer dollars? The NRA is involved, really? Oh, that makes me very uncomfortable.”

Quite often in responding to complaints CBC programming leaders and the Ombudsman have made the point that a certain level of knowledge is expected in the audience about on-going stories. Gun control has been a consistent if not continuous issue in North America for some decades. I doubt that it would surprise some that the National Rifle Association would be “interested” in the Canadian debate. However the programmers involved concluded that the current audience was not aware of the history of NRA interest and involvement.

The journalists involved make the reasonable argument that they presented factual material that might not have been known by many who have not followed the debate. Indeed, had the report been framed as a background item on the continuing interest of organizations like the National Rife Association (and, undoubtedly, other groups, foreign and domestic, on both sides of the debate) it would have been unexceptional.

However, introduced as it was, those of us with some knowledge of the NRA and its activities might have expected some recent evidence supporting the notion of NRA involvement in the debate.

I would also note the absence of Mr. Bernardo, except in the form of quotations from a years old article in a magazine. It was pointed out that Mr. Bernardo was currently in Australia and unavailable. As the ostensible target of the investigative story, Mr. Bernardo had the right to respond to the points raised in the reporting leading up to the story. I hasten to add that subjects of stories cannot be given veto power by refusing to participate. A log of the efforts made to get a response from Mr. Bernardo and his organization shows that reasonable steps were taken to include their views. Some quotes from him were obtained the next day by e-mail: “I can assure you, the NRA is not assisting in the long-gun registry debate in any way.” Ms. Swain went on to add, “But he didn't clarify his earlier comments about the group's support.” Indeed; a probing interview with Mr. Bernardo would have been very useful, but the programmers, despite effort, could not obtain one.

While some might feel that the item might have lacked investigative depth, part of that problem was engendered by the avoidance of interviews by key players.

Conclusion

The item was a reasonable summary of the interest that a very important American lobbying group has taken in the Canadian issue. Although we might have wished for more depth and context, the item's flaws do not move it outside the bounds of CBC policy.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman