Gun control

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant said a segment on gun control on the CBC Radio Ottawa program, Ontario Today, was biased. I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On June 21, 2012, CBC Radio Ottawa featured a lengthy segment on its Ontario Today program concerning gun control. It came in the wake of the federal elimination of the long gun registry and lingering questions about the degree of gun controls in Canada and their relationship to crime levels.

Host Hallie Cotnam had two guests in her nearly-50-minute session: former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant, representing the Coalition for Gun Control; and John Evers, the regional director of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association for Southwestern Ontario. Bryant favoured the collection of personal information by gun sellers of gun owners, while Evers opposed mandatory collection.

The program also featured open-line listener comments and questions, with roughly equal amounts of time from proponents on both sides of the issue.

The complainant, Brian Stewart, wrote later that day and said the segment lacked balance and that Cotnam demonstrated bias.

Stewart said a disproportionate amount of time was allocated to Bryant. He argued that Cotnam “showed a lack of respect” for Evers, particularly when Evers remarked on a much-publicized 2009 traffic accident involving Bryant in which a cyclist died following an altercation between them. (Bryant, who by then had departed provincial politics, was charged with criminal negligence causing death and dangerous driving. Charges were withdrawn in 2010 and prosecutors said the cyclist had been the aggressor in the altercation.)

Additionally, Evers had said one caller was “confused” about the gun registry issue and another “paranoid” and “should get some help with that” for suggesting the government had eliminated the registry because it might want to stage a coup d'etat.

Evers, attempting to play down the connection between registration and death, noted that Bryant's Saab was registered but the cyclist “still died.”

At that point, Cotnam said: “John, John, please, let's try and raise the tone of this discussion.”

Evers replied: “Absolutely.”

Cotnam added: “Mr. Bryant was exonerated.

Evers said: “Absolutely.”

Cotnam replied: “Just be frank. Please don't insult our callers as well.”

The discussion resumed with Evers and Bryant participating for several minutes.

Rob Renaud, the managing director for CBC Ottawa, wrote Stewart on July 20. He said the segment featured almost equal amounts of time for Evers and Bryant to present their positions and for proponents on both sides of the issue to discuss the matter. He acknowledged that Cotnam worked to keep Evers on topic.

“It's the host's responsibility to keep the conversation on track and to keep it civil,” he said. “While Ms. Cotnam did allow her frustration to show, we felt that she did not cross the line as she tried to steer the conversation back to the topic at hand.”

Stewart wrote again July 23 and asked for a review. He said: “CBC employees are extremely well compensated by taxpayers like Evers and Canadians expect a superior degree of professionalism for their hard-earned taxes.”

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices counsel even-handed, respectful treatment of individuals and the presentation over a reasonable period of time of divergent views in matters of controversy.

Conclusion

The complainant said Canadians expect “a superior degree of professionalism” from CBC. I could not agree more.

For a host, live broadcasting is a difficult task featuring a blend of journalistic and social skills to permit equitable presentation, challenge and exchange of views, a linear flow in the exploration of topics, and a healthy respect of guests, the audience and the clock. Their ultimate loyalty is to the public — this can be especially so for a public broadcaster — and at times that means curtailing the excesses of guests who wrongly assume that the privilege of a platform is a licence.

By the time Hollie Cotnam admonished her guest and asked him to carry himself with civility in the discussion, he had made light of the mental health of two callers, described the argument of his fellow panellist as lies, and reached back into a dark chapter of that panellist's life to make a glib point about death. Her obligation to her audience, to callers and to the other panellist was to restore control of the leash.

Cotnam could have cut his microphone for the balance of the segment, but she continued to treat him cordially — as she had to that point — as a full participant with something to contribute to the discussion, even granting him the final word. In doing so she displayed the “superior degree of professionalism” the complainant sought.

There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman