'Robocalls' to voters in 2011 federal election campaign

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The review follows a complaint that a CBC Radio report March 16 on so-called “robocalls” to voters in the 2011 federal election campaign contained inaccurate information. I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

CBC Radio's World Report led its newscast March 16, 2012 with a story from CBC Senior Ottawa Correspondent Terry Milewski about the ongoing controversy involving what are termed “robocalls” during the 2011 federal election campaign.

Typically, robocalls involve a computerized autodialer — often driven by a database that has identified characteristics of those targeted by the calls — delivering recorded or live messages.

The CBC News report was the latest episode arising from allegations of improper calls in federal ridings that directed people on election day to fictitious voting stations. Elections Canada and the RCMP are investigating the matter following allegations in about 200 federal ridings.

The radio report indicated that a CBC investigation had found a “distinct pattern” in 31 ridings in which voters were directed to fictitious voting stations: They had indicated to callers they were not going to vote Conservative.

The report was illustrated by three examples of voters who were called and directed to false sites. Two men said the calls were supposedly from Elections Canada and one woman said a call came from the Conservatives. In the latter case, the woman even said she phoned the number back and reached a Conservative campaign office.

In his report, Milewski said that opposition parties assert that those who were intent on misleading voters had gained their knowledge of Conservative non-supporters from the closely guarded Conservative database (a constituent information and issues management system known as CIMS). He said the Conservatives declined comment for his report.

The complainant, David Grant, wrote March 16 that the report was inaccurate and misleading. He asserted that most campaigns with ample support would be able to create such a database and that access to it would be widespread. He said this would be common knowledge.

“There is no valid explanation other than a plan by CBC staffers to make a false story,” he wrote. “The only remaining mystery is whether this was for self-aggrandizement, or for a darker purpose.”

The executive editor of CBC News, Esther Enkin, wrote Grant on April 11. She asserted that CIMS was a database restricted to those given permission by a Member of Parliament or riding association executive. Lower-level campaign workers would not have access, she said, so the notion that the database was “closely guarded” was fair and accurate.

She noted, too, that Milewski did not suggest the Conservative Party made the calls — only that the opposition said that whoever did had access to the party database.

Grant wrote again April 12 and asked for a review. He said CBC needed to admit that the robocalls could be made without the Conservative Party's executive-level participation — or, as a corollary, that CBC needed to back down from an assertion that the only way the calls could be made was with such participation.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for truth-seeking, fair-minded, respectful and diverse gathering and presentation of information.

It strives for impartiality: “We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.”

Conclusion

The report compressed a survey of 31 ridings into two minutes of journalism. It was carefully phrased to stop short of an accusation that the Conservative Party was behind the robocalls — even if in one case someone said a caller self-identified as a Conservative worker when calling and when called back.

Instead, it said the Conservatives' opponents asserted that the calls were placed by those with access to the database. There is no evidence to the contrary; indeed, several reports indicate the focus of the RCMP and Elections Canada investigations has been on determining who had database access and when it was used.

I concluded that the description of the database as “closely guarded” was accurate and fair.

The Conservative Party's own documentation online indicates that individual access to the database can be granted only with the approval of both the riding association president and the party's executive director. The database is password-protected — presumably, as in other such

databases, with individual access logged and retrievable. While the documentation indicates campaigns can integrate the database into political activities, the approval level for access and password protection are indicative of content not aimed to be shared widely.

There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman