CBC.ca blog post on government assistance

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint involved a CBC.ca blog post on government assistance. It did not include the viewpoint of the post's subject, a violation of journalistic standards that call for even-handed treatment of individuals and organizations.

On October 3, 2011, CBC.ca carried an Inside Politics Blog post from Kady O'Malley, titled: “Canada Economic Action! Plan Flashback: Stimulating the hard-hit . . . political polling sector?”

It outlined how the Holinshed Research Group had qualified for stimulus funds under the federal Economic Action Plan that had been launched in response to the global recession. It was “as far as I can tell” the only political polling firm to do so, O'Malley said.

The post said the company received $125,000 from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario in the form of a non-repayable loan to develop mapping software that would help election candidates. The post noted it was at the time entangled in a legal battle to negotiate a settlement of a financial claim with a former Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership candidate.

The post said Holinshed had “strong ties to both the federal and provincial Conservative Parties” and that co-founder Frank Hall had been a policy adviser to then-Opposition Leader Preston Manning and had run for the Canadian Alliance in a 2000 byelection in Newfoundland.

The post noted that a Newfoundland magazine media profile indicated a forerunner of the software had been used in 2008 to elect “one of just two Canadian Alliance MPs to win in Ontario” and that Holinshed had provided services to candidates in 16 ridings in the 2008 federal election and 14 candidates in the 2007 Ontario provincial election. The post said the political affiliations of those candidates were not identified.

Frank Hall, the Holinshed co-founder, wrote to complain June 21, 2012. He said the story was inaccurate and that it “implies improper actions (by me) in obtaining government support for industrial research and development funding.”

Hall said he had tried repeatedly by phone and email to reach O'Malley after he read the post, sent her a Holinshed news release responding to it, but never heard from her. He asked that the story be removed online and that CBC apologize for it.

On June 26, O'Malley emailed Hall and offered to update her post if he would forward his comments. She then published an updated version July 31 in which she noted Hall said the funds came from the National Research Council's Industrial Research Assistance Program and that the project and his firm had undergone a scientific audit and financial review by the Council.

The amended post further updated information on the candidates associated with the Holinshed software. O'Malley said a search of candidate financial returns indicated that 11 federal candidates, all Conservatives, listed Holinshed as a supplier during the 2008 election, up from three candidates (two Conservatives and one Liberal) in the previous election.

The updated post also noted that Hall stated in his news release that neither he nor Holinshed was associated with any political party.

The amended post included a “corrections and clarifications” box to note the updates.

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote Hall on August 2 and acknowledged that the initial post “should have included your views” but disagreed with his assertions that it was inaccurate. The information was taken from federal websites, she noted, although it appeared that the economic development agencies were listing awards of funds without necessarily outlining their origins.

Enkin said O'Malley posts several times a day. “They are often written in an abbreviated style, sometimes closer to notes than stories, and are intended to supplement the conventional and more detailed news stories you will find on the CBCNews.ca front page. Nevertheless, they do fall under CBC's rigorous Journalistic Standards and Practices.”

Enkin said O'Malley was doing her job in reporting information from the federal sites. “However, since the story focused on you and the Holinshed Research Group, to be fair, it would have benefitted from including your views or the company's views. Regrettably, it did not. Nor did we follow up with you after you wrote to us a few days after the story was posted. For that I offer my sincere apologies. We should have.”

Hall wrote Enkin on August 4 and said the story remained inaccurate. He said the story continued to note that Hall's company's software supported Canadian Alliance candidates in 2008, but in fact the party no longer existed at that point. He said the story overstated his now-severed ties with the Conservatives and implied he only received funds because of political connections. He said the only work his firm did for the Conservatives was in 2004 and that it had to file a lawsuit to secure payment.

He asked for a review by this Office.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for even-handed, respectful treatment of individuals and organizations to ensure fair coverage. It calls for consistent standards “no matter what the platform, in disseminating information.”

The policy does not encourage the deletion of online content except in cases when there are “legal or personal safety considerations” to the person named.

Conclusion

The complaint reflects the challenges of journalism in the digital age. So much information is accessible online and many journalists make rapid and productive use of it, but the combination of technology and speed can be a mixed blessing. Responsible organizations ensure the principles of journalism remain, including a subject's right of response to critical or focused reportage in order to achieve fairness. CBC's journalistic policy requires this on all its platforms.

In this instance CBC agreed the journalist should have taken time to include the complainant's viewpoint in the post to permit the reader a fairer range of information about which to assess the matter. In correspondence with the complainant CBC acknowledged it did not meet its fairness test in its Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Had she done so, CBC News might have been able also to resolve how an economic development agency was associating itself with what had been a research council contract. That matter is of lingering confusion.

Similarly, the complainant would have been able to discuss his contemporary relationship with the Conservative Party. On that matter, I concluded the story was not inaccurate in stating his past association, but would have benefitted from more recent information.

Failing those inclusions initially, it would have been reasonable to quickly publish information from the news release that shed additional light on the original post. Instead, several months passed before the post was updated, by which time the impact of the story was set and spread.

The policy restricts what can be deleted to those instances in which there are legal or personal considerations for the subject. There are no such considerations here.

On a more minor issue: Phrasing in one sentence left the complainant to infer the post inaccurately asserted there were Canadian Alliance candidates in 2008 (the party morphed into the Conservative Party in 2003).

The confusion sprung from some awkward wording. A paragraph in the post noted activities of 2000 and the next paragraph said a 2008 magazine profile noted “later that same year” software had been used to help “elect one of two Canadian Alliance MPs to win in Ontario.” I can understand the confusion, but after re-reading it, I concluded “that same year” was 2000 and not 2008 — meaning, later in the year of the 2000 activities. There was no inaccuracy, but some room for improvement.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman