Presentation of new colours to regiment

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Error in report about presentation of new colours to a Canadian regiment by HRH the Prince of Wales

You wrote initially to complain about an item on The National of November 8, 2009. In it, two people with differing views of the monarchy offered observations during a ceremony in which HRH the Prince of Wales presented new “colours” to a Canadian regiment. One of the men stated that the Canadian “flag” was made subordinate to a Royal “flag.” You pointed out that this was incorrect and suggested that the CBC should either have avoided running this inaccuracy or corrected it in some fashion.

Mark Harrison, the Executive Producer of The National, responded. He acknowledged that the statement at issue was incorrect but said that it was not CBC News that made the error, but the observer in question. He went on to say that “as important as accuracy is in CBC's journalism, expecting that we prove the truth or falsity of every statement made by someone included in a story would effectively end the public discussion of controversial issues. Nor is it reasonable to expect that we intervene in some fashion, as you suggested, to ‘correct' or ‘clarify' such erroneous statements.”

You were unsatisfied with his response and asked for a review.


Mr. Harrison is clearly correct in stating that it is not incumbent on the CBC to prove the truth or falsity of every statement made by someone included in a story. Of course normally those statements would be included in either a report by a journalist that would balance the cut and thrust of opposing opinions and bring additional light to bear on the subject, or in an interview during which the journalist could test and probe. At a certain point, any subject is entitled to his or her own opinion.

However, it is also appropriate that “facts” being offered to support an opinion be tested as far as is reasonable within the format. At issue is not the man's opinion on the monarchy, but his erroneous description of what was taking place. It is agreed by all that the Canadian “flag” was not being subordinated to a Royal “flag.” I presume that this erroneous example was not the sole basis of the man's opinion on the monarchy and that other portions of the commentary might have been available for use. Since, as Mr. Harrison had pointed out, The National had already carried a story days earlier with correct information, it would appear that ignorance is not a defense.

Even if the editors involved were not aware of the previous story or the accurate information, it would have been possible to note the error, when it came to their attention, in an appropriate way on the CBC website. While I am a hearty defender of journalists' freedom, indeed obligation, to report the widest range of opinions, I find it difficult to agree that journalists have the right to knowingly broadcast inaccurate information without correction.

Conclusion

CBC programs should never shy away from broadcasting the widest possible range of opinions, but when a statement of fact is clearly in error some appropriate journalistic steps should be taken to correct the error.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman