Opinion piece by Stockwell Day

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The review involves a complaint about a CBC.ca opinion piece by Stockwell Day on the focus by the Occupy movement on the income gap between rich and poor. There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On February 14, 2012, CBC.ca carried an opinion piece by Stockwell Day titled: “Avoid the trap of the income ‘gap.'”

Day, identified on the CBC.ca website as a former senior Conservative cabinet minister and regular contributor to CBC News Network's Power & Politics, wrote that the Occupy movement was wrong to focus on the income gap between rich and poor.

“The fact that some in society earn more than others is apparently a burning indictment of the system itself,” he wrote. “Should we not be factoring in some broader considerations here that go beyond this narrow and suffocating view of how the world works?”

He argued: “The key is not to punish or inhibit those who enhance what life has dealt them. The key is to make sure everybody has equal opportunity, not to naively attempt to legislate equal outcome.”

Day acknowledged the free-market system was not perfect and that it needed certain functions — contract law, proper regulation and a fair tax regime — to best serve.

He asserted: “It is absolutely undeniable that in more and more places around the world where market principles are being allowed to operate we are witnessing millions of previously impoverished people becoming upwardly mobile. In spite of the fact that there is still corruption and the inappropriate granting of privilege in too many places, people are working towards levels of substance and substance which even 15 years ago would have been unthinkable.

He concluded: “Improve the system? Yes. Trash it because some people are better off than I am? No.”

The complainant, Aaron Sheldon, wrote February 16 to express concern about the “appallingly low quality” of the editing of the piece. He said the piece was “replete with fallacies, inaccuracies, logical inconsistencies, and is in general a poorly argued and composed piece of authorship.”

He identified several areas of his concern and argued: “If this was an editorial supporting creationism, would it have received the same low level of editorial review? The social Darwinism advocated by Stockwell Day has been no less discredited than creationism, and yet the editorial was published without significant revisions.”

Sheldon said an editor should have returned the submission to Day and asked for changes to what he called “unsupported empty rhetoric.”

On March 15, the executive editor of CBC News, Esther Enkin, wrote Sheldon to say Day's views were “one of many opinions on the movement that can be found” on CBC.ca. She noted that, while Day was given the opportunity to express his views, so were readers in the online comments attached to the piece — nearly one hundred did, many in strong disagreement.

“As you noted, the equitable expression of differing points of view on controversial matters lies at the heart of the notion of fairness in journalism. Of course, not everyone will agree with all the views expressed, as clearly you do not agree with Mr. Day in this instance. Fair enough,” Enkin wrote.

But she added: “It is CBC's obligation to present those differing views fairly and accurately affording Canadians the opportunity and the information they need to make up their own minds about the nature or quality of the views expressed. And I believe we are doing that.”

Sheldon wrote this Office February 20 to ask for a review.

He wrote again March 26 to suggest that the concept of “balance” often conflicts with “accuracy” and “impartiality.” He asked whether “balance” required CBC to carry inaccurate and biased information.

Sheldon said that Day misrepresented the opinions of his perceived opponents; in that respect, Sheldon argued, Day had violated the CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy.

He wondered if Day's work received the same attention as the work of others and asked: “Is enough time being afforded to editorial review to ensure that the highest quality of work is produced?”

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices permit opinion to add to the public understanding of issues. “When we choose to present a single point of view, it is clearly labeled, and it does not misrepresent other points of view.”

The policy says that “CBC, in its programming, over time, provides a wide range of comment and opinion on significant issues. We achieve balance by featuring multiple perspectives and points of view to reflect a diversity of opinion.”

It adds: “It is important to mention any association, affiliation or special interest a guest or commentator may have so that the public can fully understand that person's perspective.”

The policy calls for even-handed, respectful treatment of varying perspectives.

It should be noted that online comments are not covered in the policy and not part of the mandate of the Office of the Ombudsman, unless those comments have been integrated in CBC journalism.

Conclusion

Apart from the fact it is often a mug's game to evaluate the quality of argument in an opinion piece, the CBC journalistic policy and the Ombudsman's mandate limit any assessment.

To fulfill policy, the organization has to provide an equitable — and not necessarily equal — range of opinion over a reasonable time. Any individual commentary cannot misrepresent another point of view in presenting its own.

In this instance, CBC noted the presence of online comments that took issue with the opinions expressed in the piece. Still, the achievement of balance has to be within CBC's agency and cannot depend on the public—the commentary is CBC's journalism and the comments are not.

It was not difficult in this review to find many examples across CBC's journalistic platforms of a range of views concerning the Occupy movement. Ample voice was given to varying perspectives. The commentary existed in this context within policy.

Day's background was identified online to clearly represent his interests (indeed, he had been not only a former Conservative minister but a former leader of the federal Conservative Alliance). This transparency certainly fulfilled policy.

One principle I could examine in this case was whether the piece misrepresented other views. I could not conclude it did. As Day noted, “some” within the Occupy movement were calling for change — such measures as greater taxation of the wealthy, stronger redistribution of income, more significant governmental support of the poor, and regulatory and legal measures to effect a narrowing of the gap between rich and not. The statement was sufficiently broad to not be unfair or inaccurate.

There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman