Coverage of Prime Minister

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The quality of prime ministerial coverage

The complainant wrote September 8, 2010, and his letter reflected a general discontent with what he viewed as a trend in CBC News coverage toward a diminished and intermediated coverage of the activities of the prime minister.

“A virtual boycott of prime ministerial coverage appears to be in effect,” he wrote.

He followed that letter with another one October 14, 2010, to complain about voice- overs of the prime minister's speeches and to call them “insensitive to Canadians' respect for their elected head of state.”

He complained that political opponents get equal coverage, even though they lost the election.

He asserted CBC Radio carried an audio clip from U.S. President Barack Obama when 33 Chilean miners were rescued but did not provide the same from Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote the complainant October 25, 2010, to disagree with his views. She provided several examples of extensive coverage. While there are occasions when CBC and other media do not carry full speeches, they do summarize and contextualize those addresses in reporting full-fledged stories, she wrote.

It is common to provide short clips of prime ministerial statements. “Inevitably, some things are left out,” she wrote, “but that does not mean the story is biased.”

Enkin challenged the view that the political opposition is given equal coverage to the prime minister, who she asserted “has greater significance and regularly sees more coverage than the leader of the major opposition party. In fact, I think you will find that over the years opposition parties routinely complain that the media focuses its attention on the prime minister and that they find it very difficult to get what they feel is adequate coverage of their views and activities.”

She noted a recent report commissioned for CBC on its fairness and balance had drawn the same conclusion.

As for the Chilean miner comments, she said the prime minister issued a written statement, which CBC.ca carried.

Enkin said CBC routinely reports on the prime minister's activities in Canada and travels abroad with him to ensure his international activities are covered.

“Of course, we cannot include all, or even many, of the stories taking place around the country, but we do include those of the greatest interest and significance to Canadians,” she said. “We are a public broadcaster, not a state broadcaster, so we make editorial choices about which of the prime minister's activities we feature.”

The complainant wrote again December 8, 2010, to assert that CBC believes it acceptable to speak over the speeches and pre-empt or not feature speeches or press releases or activities of the prime minister. “Unfortunately, the status quo is to be dismissive of greatness in leadership, but the status quo is always yesterday's ideal,” he wrote.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices in effect at the time intersect in several ways with the complaint. It called for accurate, fair and balanced reporting, and it noted “the airwaves must not fall under the control of any individuals or groups influential because of their special position.”

It said that credibility depended in part “upon avoidance by both the organization and its journalists of associations or contacts which could reasonably give rise to perceptions of partiality.”

The policy called for equitable treatment of points of view. “Equitable in this context means fair and reasonable, taking into consideration the weight of opinion behind a point of view, as well as its significance or potential significance.”

The policy included an appendix that outlined how certain events of national importance warranted full or extended live coverage and pre-emption of other programming, including the opening of Parliament; the Throne Speech debate; the budget speech; federal-provincial first ministers' conferences; such state occasions as royal visits, state funerals and major commemorative occasions; and leadership conventions of major political parties.

Other events that might be accorded such coverage could include major parliamentary debates, policy conventions for major parties and interprovincial first ministers' conferences. Such coverage should ensure “approximately equivalent treatment” to speakers from each party or each participant in first ministers' conferences.

Conclusion

The complaint raises an important issue: In an age of accelerated and abundant media, how does an organization preserve the quality of prime ministerial coverage?

In recent years many news organizations have shifted resources away from federal political coverage, including a diminished attention on the chambers and proceedings of Parliament and its committees. Fewer organizations travel with the prime minister, particularly when he ventures abroad. Even though online platforms offer vast space for coverage, more events and activities compete for smaller editorial space in newspapers and the finite time in newscasts.

CBC News has special responsibilities as a standard-bearer in this context. In its most recent policy on journalism, it recognizes its mission is “to inform, to reveal, to contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest and to encourage citizens to participate in our free and democratic society.” An element of that recognition certainly is its continued focus on political and parliamentary affairs; a consequence of diminished coverage could be a dysfunctional connection between politicians and the public served.

Across its platforms, CBC offers an extensive menu of such coverage and holds to a tradition of pre-empting programming for significant ceremonial and political events. Its two-decades-old television news network has taken on increased responsibility to supplement the main network's presentations. While it does not have an all-news radio service, its online service features an extensive political and parliamentary package that includes audio and video assets.

What discourages the complainant is the intervention of announcers and commentators into the raw narrative of the events. This intervention is a common but still rather recent development, and its aim is to serve an audience that feels time-pressed and in need of a more rapid understanding of what it is consuming and why it is significant.

I take note of the CBC report on fairness and balance and the challenges in defining what those qualities mean. Clearly there are some who feel the insinuation of journalistic observation into these events explicitly erodes fairness and balance, but I do not agree. Times change, the methods by which organizations engage their audience do, too, and those methods need to include informed observations and analysis as the events proceed and not following.

It is important to evaluate the scope of programming, not just the non-mediated elements of it, in order to gauge the commitment to political and parliamentary coverage. In this regard I take note of the sustained effort by the CBC News Network to feature and discuss federal, provincial, municipal and international politics, as well as the continued development of CBC.ca as a leading platform for coverage and audience interaction on public affairs. They augment the substantial and unmatched output of the CBC conventional radio and television networks. The result not only supplies traditional reportage but extensive analysis and commentary across its platforms, all of which contributes to a stronger understanding of events and their implications.

In this instance I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman