Coverage of the Green Party of Nova Scotia, 2009 provincial election
I am writing with regard to your May 5, 2009, letter and request June 10, 2009 for a review by this Office concerning coverage of the Green Party of Nova Scotia in the provincial election.
I want to preface my review with a sincere apology for the time it has taken to deal with your complaint. When I assumed the role of Ombudsman last November, I worked with my predecessor to contend with a substantial backlog. That work continues. I respect the fact it is of little consolation to you, though, and I very much regret the way in which your request has been processed. It is not indicative of the attitude or practice of this Office.
Since your complaint was filed, two policies have changed: A new CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy took effect last November and the identities of complainants now are made public. Both policy changes preceded your complaint, so neither will be applied.
CBC provided extensive coverage of the 2009 Nova Scotia provincial election campaign in the months of May and June. The complainant first wrote May 8, 2009, to inquire if there was any obligation for CBC to cover all of the parties in the campaign. He said he was writing in the context of his support as a citizen (but not in an official capacity, even though he had held such a position) for the Green Party of Nova Scotia. He noted coverage of other party officials who hadn‟t even been nominated to run yet.
The executive editor of CBC News, Esther Enkin, wrote back June 1, 2009, to note that CBC had been covering the Green Party during the campaign of the last few weeks. She said that CBC was obliged by regulation and policy to provide a balanced form of coverage.
The complainant wrote back June 10, 2009, after the election result, to say that the coverage of the Greens had been better than coverage of the previous election but neither equitable nor sufficient. Of particular note were CBC‟s decisions to not include the Green Party in the televised leaders‟ debate in either election.
“Frankly it smacks of an „old guard‟ trying to keep out the free expression of new ideas,” he wrote.
He asked for a review of coverage of the last two provincial elections to determine if regulations or policies had been violated.
CBC‟s Journalistic Standards and Practices in effect at the time called for “particular care” during election campaigns. The policy said there must be “close and meticulous attention to overall political balance. Quantitative checks are normally employed for guidance during election or referendum campaigns. Such quantitative checks must be supplemented by the exercise of qualitative judgments so that imbalance does not occur through the manipulation of events.”
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission also intersects with issues of equitable editorial access.
In a 2009 directive issued three days after the election call to broadcast undertakings in Nova Scotia, titled Broadcasting Information Bulletin 2009-256, the Commission wrote that broadcasters have an obligation “to provide equitable — fair and just — treatment of issues, candidates and parties. It should be noted that „equitable‟ does not necessarily mean „equal‟ but, generally, all candidates and parties are entitled to some coverage that will give them the opportunity to expose their ideas to the public.”
It added specific language for news coverage, in all likelihood to avoid any appearance of regulatory involvement in editorial decision-making. It said it accepted “arguments put forward that news coverage should generally be left to the editorial judgment of the broadcast licensee.”
That being said, it noted that Section 3 of the Broadcasting Act required that programming be of “high standard” and that it “provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern.”
The CRTC noted that broadcasters “have an obligation under this section to ensure that their audiences are informed of the main issues and of the positions of all candidates and registered parties on those issues.”
The Green Party polled 9,636 votes of the 412,351 cast, or about 2.34 per cent of the total. Support in public opinion polls during the campaign did not vary from that percentage in a statistically significant way. It has never elected a Member of the House of Assembly in the province.
The complaint is ambitious in scope because it seeks a review of all of CBC‟s coverage of two election campaigns over two-month periods in 2006 and 2009. Since the Ombudsman only has a mandate to review complaints involving content broadcast in the last year, the request to look at the 2006 election cannot be fulfilled.
Given that standards and practices policy in effect at the time in 2009 provided a strong framework for CBC‟s journalistic conduct, I have conducted a review of archived material on the Green Party of Nova Scotia to determine if journalistic principles were fulfilled.
I recognize the complaint reprises a longstanding issue for fledgling parties and for media in election campaigns and in their political coverage, namely: Does popularity stimulate coverage or does coverage stimulate popularity? But I don‟t believe I can explore this chicken-and-egg argument. The matter at hand is simpler.
News organizations need to be responsive to trends in public opinion and attuned to developments they feel are relevant and of interest. They are there, in CBC‟s own words, “to encourage citizens to participate in our free and democratic society.”
Media need to be aware of fresh ideas and approaches in public life and to give those qualities an opportunity to be well understood. This is a lesson lost at times. More than once in recent Canadian history, many media were caught off-guard by the rise of parties and movements.
But media need to be free to exercise broad judgment on what constitutes equitability. They should not be scripted on editorial approach. In their service to the public, any imposition or expectation of a targeted quantity of coverage (or, for that matter, a directed exclusionary policy) undermines the important principle of editorial independence. It is not the media‟s role to prop any political party with artificially mandated inclusion.
Finite airtime and resources have to be allocated to greatest effect. The loyalty to the public requires emphasis on what the public has signaled as its priorities for attention in an election campaign.
As news organizations attempt to involve fledgling political entities in their coverage, there will be occasions when the coverage did not prove proportionate. But this is a better result than preordained equivalence.
It is difficult to know which criteria are necessary to gain participation in the vital televised leaders‟ debates. Registration of a political party is not sufficient. Public opinion standing can be fleeting. Previous electoral success can be a factor. But it is still a subjective decision largely based on editorial judgment of the public interest.
I am comfortable with the judgment CBC made in this instance not to include the Green Party in the debates. It had neither ranked highly in public opinion in recent times provincially nor elected a Member to the House of Assembly. I found evidence that CBC did well to raise awareness and stimulate debate about the Green Party‟s contributions to the campaign. It provided coverage of the Green Party platform, some of its candidates‟ views on issues, and riding races in which it stood to be a factor.
I have concluded CBC met its obligation to provide equitable treatment in line with broadcast law, in the spirit of broadcast regulation, and in keeping with its own Standards and Practices policy.
I take note of an earlier review by the English- and French-language Ombudsmen that drew the same conclusion. That being said, they suggested it wise to evaluate approaches to leaders‟ debates to consider alternatives that might “reflect the full spirit” of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices. I agree, and as a larger audience shifts into digital news consumption, there obviously exists great potential for such efforts.