Reports about federal Conservative government

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint cited reports on proposed legislation, on allegations of voting irregularities, and coverage of an MP as indications of bias against the Conservative government. I did not find violations of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

The complainant, Michael McCartie, wrote CBC News on March 5, 2012 with concerns about three recent reports on CBC Radio. He asserted their content and tone constituted bias against the federal Conservative government.

The journalists behind these pieces demonstrate a “decidedly negative bias towards the current government of Canada. The way the CBC chooses to present a story is, to me, decidedly slanted against the Tories.”

The first involved omnibus legislation with a wide range of Criminal Code amendments to address organized crime and public security threats. An element of the legislation included expanded powers of surveillance.

McCartie said CBC's reporting of this legislation failed to note that the previous Liberal government had also introduced a similar bill and gave the impression that the current government had an agenda to reduce freedom and steal personal information rather than crack down on pedophiles.

The second dealt with ongoing allegations involving so-called “robocalls” in the last federal election campaign. Reports had surfaced of calls placed to voters on election day who had indicated they were not Conservative supporters. The allegations were that the non-supporters of the Conservatives were directed to fictitious voting sites.

McCartie said CBC had characterized the activity as “disgusting,” “corrupt” and “illegal” by Conservatives in order to fraudulently win the election. He asserted that the extent of the alleged fraud was confined to one riding.

The third concerned a report of a Conservative MP who fell asleep on the job. McCartie wondered if he was the only MP ever to do so and whether CBC would ever report on a Liberal or New Democratic Party MP who would, too.

He added: “It is not the privilege of the CBC staff to use tax dollars to propagate a particular world view under a guise of objective journalism.”

The executive editor of CBC News, Esther Enkin, wrote McCartie on May 1 to respond to his concerns.

Enkin acknowledged that the Conservatives had criticized the earlier Liberal surveillance proposal but that their bill was broad and had been greeted with a “massive public outcry” about its powers, including criticism from within its own party.

Enkin said that it was important to make the distinction between news and how the media covers the news. While criticism about the legislation “may be seen as criticism of the government's proposed legislation, it is not criticism by the news media. The message may be seen as critical, the messenger should not be.”

She added: “Indeed, Canadians have every reason to expect reports of the legislation and the criticism to be fair, accurate and balanced. And I believe they were.”

Enkin said she could not find examples in the robocall coverage in which CBC journalists used the terms McCartie cited.

And she defended the coverage of the Conservative MP, Rob Anders. She noted that a veterans group had complained Anders fell asleep while they presented to a House of Commons committee. There had earlier been video of Anders falling asleep in the Commons in 2011. Anders initially denied he had fallen asleep at the committee and criticized the group, only to apologize later.

“An MP falling asleep during a House of Commons committee meeting, angering military veterans who had every reason to expect he was there to listen to them, insulting the veterans and then apologizing, but only in a statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office, is newsworthy. It would be newsworthy no matter what party the MP belongs to,” she wrote.

McCartie was not satisfied with the CBC response. He indicated particular displeasure with the robocall coverage, which he said reflected “strategically biased social engineering that journalists who hold a particular political persuasion can be tempted to indulge in.”

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices require independence from “all political and economic influence,” even-handed and respectful treatment of individuals and organizations, and impartiality on all matters of public debate.

It adds: “On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are.”

According to policy, those views are to be represented over a “reasonable” period of time across CBC's platforms.

Conclusion

The decisions to pursue stories are outside of the Ombudsman's mandate. CBC, like all news organizations, has to have sufficient independence from Ombudsmen to determine how to allocate resources. The only questions are how CBC covered the stories and whether it adhered to its policy in doing so.

Government action quite naturally attracts extensive coverage, including critical reaction, but reported criticism is not a reporter's criticism.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices require that a range of perspectives — including assertion and criticism — be featured fairly and proportionately. The equitable treatment is a particularly important principle in political coverage so as not to give rise to bias.

While the three instances cited in the complaint involved considerable criticism of government and one of its representatives, I found they also provided a considerable combination of assertion, support and defence of policy and beliefs.

The sequence of presentation, criticism, defence and debate of the surveillance legislation gave voice to divergent views over a reasonable period across CBC's platforms, in keeping with policy.

The robocall story evolved for weeks as more allegations in ridings emerged, and while the matter remains under investigation and inconclusive, CBC has provided extensive opportunities for all interested parties to weigh in and be heard. (As an aside, I could not, in a review of CBC's work on this story over a period of weeks, find any examples of the aggressively negative descriptions cited by the complainant.)

Similarly, the matter involving the MP was not unfair as journalism because it involved the conduct of his official duties. When he criticized the veterans group that had criticized him, and when the Prime Minister's Office issued an apology, it provided insight into how public figures and political parties can handle personal and professional tensions. A range of perspectives was presented in accordance with policy.

There were no violations of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman