Alleged voting irregularities

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The review follows a complaint that a CBC Television report was unfair in describing alleged voting irregularities in the 2011 federal election. I did not find a violation of policy but that the description could have been better worded.

On March 13, 2012, CBC Television and CBC.ca reported on alleged irregularities in the Toronto riding of Scarborough-Rouge River in the 2011 federal election — specifically, voter fraud at polling stations.

The television report from Ottawa correspondent Greg Weston on The National featured assertions by the defeated Conservative candidate, Marlene Gallyot, that she saw people voting without proper identification. She said workers for the successful New Democratic Party candidate, Rathika Sitsabaiesan, intimidated her workers on election day and made it necessary to call police. She said many people from outside the riding voted there, as did non-citizens.

It also featured Sitsabaiesan, who won the riding by 5,000 votes, denying that her workers intimidated Gallyot's and countering that Conservative workers intimidated her and riding voters.

Weston said similar complaints of irregularities arose in recent provincial and municipal campaigns and the accusations “involve the riding's large Tamil community.”

The report featured a successful provincial Liberal candidate, Bas Balkissoon, who had filed a complaint with Elections Ontario. He said his campaign knew of someone who had voted in his riding and another riding. Weston said Balkissoon is awaiting an answer on his complaint but that Gallyot had been told by Elections Canada that it would not be investigating her concerns.

The complainant, Sureni Bathmanathan, wrote March 13 to say Gallyot was complaining long after the fact, had no evidence to support her claims, and that it was disappointing that CBC was targeting the Tamil community “as election frauds.”

The executive editor of CBC News, Esther Enkin, wrote back April 16 to explain the approach of the story and the reason behind the description of the source of alleged irregularities as the “Tamil community.”

Enkin acknowledged that it was “long-standing CBC News practice to avoid, in most circumstances, using descriptive adjectives in this manner in news stories. In other words, CBC – and indeed most other news agencies – generally does not describe individuals or groups by their race or religion or sexual preference or country of origin, for instance. That is so because that information is generally irrelevant to the story and potentially offensive.”

But, she added: “However, as I said, there is an exception to that rule. And the exception is that we use those descriptions if the information is considered to be central or pertinent to the understanding of the story. That was the case here.”

Enkin noted that the longer online story contained supporting information, including specific allegations about Tamil-speaking scrutineers and about hundreds of names being added to the voting lists on voting day, “many of them Tamil names.”

Enkin said television reports have to compress a great deal of information into place.

“Inevitably, some things are left out, including, in this instance, much of the detail substantiating the reasons Mr. Weston specifically mentioned the Tamil community. However, I agree with you to the extent that the story would have been clearer had he at least indicated that such information existed.”

Pathmanathan wrote again April 23 to request a review.

She said the “allegation was a very serious one given that it is targeting an entire community as election frauds.” She said the accusations came from politically motivated individuals and that, while she was not in the position to support or deny a crime, CBC should have provided better evidence to support the report.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices note “our influence on how minorities and vulnerable groups are perceived. We do not mention national or ethnic origin. . .except when important to an understanding of the subject. . .”

It adds: “We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt.”

Conclusion

As earlier media reports indicated, allegations of voter fraud might have involved some in the Tamil community in the diverse riding of Scarborough-Rouge River. The online report featured

extensive background — almost all of it on the record — to support that assertion. But the television report did not, and in the absence of demonstrating the pertinence of ethnic origin, the phrasing stood to generalize about a large cohort.

It would have been better to find nuanced phrasing than to say the allegations of voter fraud “involve the large Tamil community” — phrasing that, even if not necessarily inaccurate in reflecting the allegations, could leave an impression of a monolithic population. Given the potential impact of such an assertion, it was important to outline the support of it.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy counsels particular attention to language so as not to foment contempt, generalizations or stereotypes. While there was not a violation of journalistic policy, I agree with CBC News that the television report could have been better phrased.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman