Conservative political rally

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Questions at Conservative political rally during federal election campaign

On April 23, 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was campaigning in Mississauga, Ontario at the Canadian Coptic Centre. He held a Conservative political rally and fielded questions from reporters.

CBC reporter Terry Milewski raised questions concerning the Conservatives' policies to combat crime.

In his preamble to the questions, Milewski noted three matters that he said appeared to conflict with those anti-crime policies: a Toronto-area candidate who had supported the terrorist Tamil Tigers; the failure to follow through with an earlier promise to create a national security commissioner; and the presence of a Vancouver-area candidate at a public meeting with a man associated with the bombers of an Air India jetliner in 1985.

The questions went as so: “First, your candidate in Scarborough we all now know was an enthusiastic cheerleader for a terrorist group, the Tamil Tigers. Now that one of your own ministers, Peter Kent, has repudiated him, you haven't. Why not? Why is Mr. Paranchothy still your candidate?

“And second, you promised in your 2006 platform, Stand Up For Canada, to create a national security commissioner. You broke that promise and you continued to break it even when a judge that you appointed, John Major, urged you to keep it, said it was essential, and would require no new bureaucracy. And so the second question is why you broke your promise on such a basic issue as public safety.

“And finally, your campaign has now issued what seems to be a completely preposterous statement on the decision of your candidate in Vancouver South, Wai Young, to meet with and receive the endorsement of a well-known member, founder member, of the Babbar Khalsa terrorist group who paid over $100,000 to the bomb maker in Air India.

“Sir, the point here is that (Ripudamin Singh) Malik was front-page news for five straight years in the biggest criminal case in Canadian history in her town. And Wai Young now claims that she didn't know who he was, went to his meeting, heard him endorse her, and didn't know who he was. Isn't that a slap in the face to the Air India families and why is Wai Young still your candidate?”

Harper responded that the Scarborough candidate, Gavan Paranchothy, had repudiated the Tamil Tigers and that the Vancouver-area candidate, Wai Young, had attended the meeting in good faith but had no links with Ripudamin Singh Malik, founder of the Babbar Khalsar movement. He did not answer the question on the security commissioner.

Harper began to speak in French and was applauded by his supporters. The applause sustained. When the applause eased, Milewski attempted to follow that question, but a Conservative official prompted the crowd to continue to cheer. Once they did, Harper walked off the stage without taking further questions.

On the CBC News Network's CBC News Now program, Milewski asserted that the cheering prevented him from asking a follow-up question. Other media reported the same.

The complainant, R.T. Richards, said that assertion was false. He said the prime minister was simply starting to answer the question in French when the cheering started. He asserted that Milewski's observations were part of a pattern of partisan attacks on the prime minister.

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote Richards on May 10 that Milewski was attempting to follow his question with a supplementary one to determine if the prime minister actually believed his Vancouver-area candidate about Malik.

She said: “Asking campaigning politicians questions – even about issues they might prefer had not been raised – is good journalism. It does not in any reasonable way constitute a ‘partisan attack.'

Enkin noted that CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices and special regulations during election campaigns call for fair and equitable treatment of those involved.

Richards asked for a review that would address what he asserted was the “personal loathing” by Milewski “palpable” to viewers. “ He is supposed to be an objective reporter, not an opposition MP playing to the cameras for Question Period.” He asserted that Milewski was much tougher on Harper than on other leaders.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices provide several policies that intersect with the complaint.

On the issue of fairness: “In our information gathering and reporting we treat individuals and organizations with openness and respect . . .We treat them even-handedly.”

On the issue of balance: “On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully.”

On impartiality: “We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.”

During elections: “We give all candidates, parties and issues equitable treatment.”

Conclusion

At the outset, the Conservative campaign limited question-and-answer sessions with reporters accompanying the leader to a total of five questions, four from the national media and one from local media. That made it necessary for the traveling media to discuss and plan among themselves which questions would be raised and who would do so. The campaign's approach had the effect of containing the range of coverage and making the pursuit of follow-up questions pretty much impractical.

Situations like these are not uncommon and have been attempted before. As this campaign wore on, though, reporters grew frustrated and began to pursue more questions than the allotted number in the so-called “scrums” they formed to query the leader. Eventually campaign officials agreed that, even if the leader would not answer, they would not challenge the effort by reporters to ask more questions and sustain the scrum for as long as they could.

Milewski has a well-earned reputation for tough-minded journalism, a characteristic he employs regularly in his role as CBC's senior political correspondent based in Ottawa. Not unlike other senior correspondents here and abroad, he is more often than not going to cover the news-making activities of the national leader. A large proportion of his work will be focused on the prime minister; with that focus will come a significant body of work that seeks accountability in the leader, which some will find disputatious. The incident that prompted this complaint involved Milewski trying to pursue a follow- up question about a significant issue involving the judgment of a candidate in a Vancouver riding expected to be closely contested (indeed, she won the riding away from the Liberals on election day).

When he was based earlier in his career in Ottawa and later in Vancouver, Milewski extensively chronicled the legal pursuit of those involved in the 1985 bombing of Air India flight 182, in which 329 were killed, including 280 Canadians, many of them from British Columbia. He has sustained his commitment to this story for much of a quarter- century.

An election campaign does not always open itself to extensive sessions of media questioning, despite the appearance of regular access and exchange as fellow travelers over several weeks of relentless activities. Many campaigns are sparing in the amount of media access they grant because they wish to focus on particular issues and limit the journalistic activity that might digress.

The public is served well by reporters who assert themselves in this context as its independent-minded surrogate to illuminate important questions, regardless of the campaign theme. Otherwise the public simply receives a structured, unquestioned message track. Supporters of campaigns might bristle at the relative aggression of inquiry, but the journalism must be unstinting when the stakes are high.

In this instance I found that Milewski asserted himself in accordance with policy and with a public-minded duty to attempt to hold a political leader accountable. He had to work around some obstacles to place questions. Supporters regularly surrounded the Conservative leader during the question sessions, and in this case an official encouraged those supporters to cheer long enough to rule out a follow-up question. Milewski reported this episode accurately, as did other media, but without malice.

I did not conclude his method of questioning — or subsequent reporting of that method — to constitute partisanship, a personal attack or anything other than a persistent quest for an answer. It was something many journalists would have done in a campaign in which there were legitimate questions about candidates. Indeed, others raised those same questions at other times.

The lengthy question included assertive remarks that were not ideal examples of detachment. But in circumstances of a long, arduous campaign of limited access, there needs to be provision for phrasing in scrum questions that strays in making the point. The thrust of the questions themselves was fair-minded.

Depending on one's perspective, seeking accountability can be perceived as a partisan attack, so it is important for journalistic credibility to apply equitable effort to other leaders. In examining several other reports on the Conservative and other party campaigns, I found no evidence of favouritism or any lack of equitability in Milewski's treatment.

There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman