Elections Act charges

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

This review follows a public complaint about a CBC Television live and unscripted report February 24, 2011 on The National concerning Elections Act charges against the federal Conservative Party. There was a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

In the evening of February 24, 2011, CBC Television's The National was under way when news broke of charges being laid against the federal Conservative Party and four of its officials by Elections Canada for administrative violations of the Elections Act.

Reporter Greg Weston was brought into the newscast from CBC's Ottawa newsroom and, without the benefit of a script or a backing report, had to explain the development to viewers.

Host Wendy Mesley noted CBC News had learned of the charges connected to alleged overspending in the 2006 federal election campaign in which funds were shifted into and out of local ridings to finance national advertising.

Weston said the development was “more of a political nightmare for the Conservatives than it is a crime story for the accused.”

Weston said the charges are administrative and not criminal in nature, so “we won't see paddy wagons and handcuffs here. In fact, the Conservative Party has long been fighting this whole matter in court and currently has it under appeal. Nonetheless, it's serious and these are actual charges.”

Weston was asked who were the officials charged. He identified two senators appointed by the prime minister, Doug Finley and Irving Gerstein. Finley had been the party's campaign director in 2006 and 2008. Two other party officials, Susan Kehoe and Michael Donison, were charged.

Mesley suggested these charges, which were “not criminal” and being appealed, would “be a pretty big blow for the Tories.”

Weston noted an election was likely soon, that the development “couldn't have come at a worse time for the Conservatives,” that the matter had been lingering four years, and that opposition parties would make the most of it when the House of Commons resumed the following week.

The complainant, Michael Harwood, wrote March 1 to cite a “significant factual error” in the report.

“As I am sure you are aware, the Conservative Party had appealed nothing, because it in fact had won a favourable court ruling made by a federal court judge in January 2010. It was Elections Canada that had the matter under appeal, because it was on the losing end of the federal court ruling, not the Conservative Party of Canada.”

Harwood went on: “Without this error, it would not have been possible for Mr. Weston and Wendy Mesley to play up this story as an unmitigated political disaster for the Conservative government, which is what they did. The Conservatives came out of this story looking far worse than they would have if Mr. Weston had reported the status of the court ruling correctly.”

Harwood noted that the next evening The National reported the matter accurately but made no acknowledgment of its original error. “Surely an on-air admission was called for when considering how consequential the error was, and how unfairly pejorative its effect was on the Conservative Party of Canada.”

Mark Harrison, the executive producer for The National, wrote back November 25 and apologized for the time it had taken to respond.

Harrison acknowledged an element of Harwood's complaint: “I agree, Mr. Weston, who was reporting live, did indeed make a mistake. And we regret the error.”

But he added: “I strongly disagree that it changed the thrust of the story in any significant way or that it affected the program's treatment of bona fide news about charges being laid.”

Harrison said the story broke 18 minutes after the program had begun and that an unscripted Weston noted accurately charges Harrison characterized as “unusual and certainly newsworthy.”

Harrison said Weston “misstated one point of background” by indicating the Conservative Party were appellants in the case. “Coincidentally, about a week after our story aired, the Conservatives did, indeed, become the appellants.”

He noted: “That doesn't justify or mitigate CBC's error, but it does illustrate the fluidity and complexity of the case, which is now before the Supreme Court of Canada.”

Harrison said the focus of the report was on the charges, not the “peripheral matter” of the legal appeal. The error did not affect the report, or Weston's assertion the timing was bad for the Conservatives, or “the undesirability of charges being laid only weeks before an election was expected to be called.”

The next evening, Harrison noted, Weston “emphasized that it was Elections Canada that had appealed the earlier decision.”

Harwood asked for a review January 9, 2012, saying it was not appropriate to regret an error “at the same time taking a deliberate path around an apology to the audience and the (Conservative Party of Canada) for the error.”

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for responsible and accountable approaches when errors are identified. “We do not hesitate to correct any mistake when necessary nor to follow-up a story when a situation changes significantly.”

The policy also calls for fairness and the treatment of individuals and organizations “even handedly” and with “openness and respect.

Conclusion

CBC News does not make exceptions or expect concessions involving its journalistic policy in the more challenging circumstances of live broadcasting, but it is fair to say that there is no small duress in attempting to deliver breaking news on a flagship broadcast without a script.

In correspondence with the complainant CBC News acknowledged the error. Its policy calls for a correction without hesitation “when necessary,” wording that leaves with it discretion on whether and how.

In earlier findings I have noted that when CBC News acknowledges the error to the complainant, it is preferable to also correct the matter with the audience. In this instance, even though a subsequent report was accurate on the matter, there was no indication of an earlier mistake.

That said, there is also little value in a correction when the audience has little chance of recalling its context. Timeliness has to be one of the factors in effective redress. In this case, it is also worth noting that what was initially an error eventually proved accurate. The Conservative Party became a case appellant on the Elections Act matter by the time the correspondence from the complainant had been answered.

The mistake was the only violation of policy.

I concluded that the error did not affect the much more important point of the story involving allegations of improper conduct against political officials on the eve of an election.

Regardless of who was appealing the court decision, it was to be expected that CBC News report on the charges and the potential political consequences. Indeed, it did so again the next day, as did other media. There was no violation of policy as it concerned issues of journalistic fairness.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman