Stroumboulopoulos on financing of environmental groups

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant asserted remarks on CBC Television's George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight indicated bias and shielded a conflict of interest. I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On March 21, 2012, CBC Television's George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight featured a regular segment, Debrief, in which host George Stroumboulopoulos presents an essay-like series of observations on issues in the news.

On this occasion he dealt with studies of urban standards of living, then veered into a look at the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline. The question he said was in debate: “Is it an economic blight or an economic boom?” The debate was making its way to Canada's Upper Chamber, the Senate, where an inquiry was taking place into the financing from the United States of Canadian environmental groups opposed to the pipeline.

Stroumboulopoulos quoted Senator Don Plett on the question: “If environmentalists are willing to accept money from Martians, where would they draw the line? Would they take money from Al Qaeda, the Hamas, or the Taliban?”

“First of all, why do you always assume the Martians are terrible people?” Stroumboulopoulos asked.

He later added: “No wonder they don't want to come down here and talk to you. You think they're like Hamas.”

He confided that Martians weren't real, but if they were, Canada had an agent to help: the Canadian star of the recent motion picture, John Carter, whose role in the film was an earthling on that planet.

“Martians aside, some environmental groups are responding,” the host continued. “The Suzuki Foundation is urging Canadians to write letters to Senators telling them to stop trying to silence critics who don't share their opinions.”

Stroumboulopoulos noted that Thomas Jefferson said the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. He added: “Many could argue that environmentalists are just being vigilant. Whether or not you agree with them isn't the point. They're asking questions. They're allowed to ask questions.”

He continued: “It's as if those who have come to power in a pseudo-democratic way — you know, appointed by democratically elected people — it's like those people don't really respect democracy.”

He concluded: “You know, if you have a problem with foreign money paying for the environmentalists — if that is the case, I should point out that according to Stats Canada, the percentage of Canadian oil and gas assets under Canadian control: 64.9 per cent as of 2009. You know what that means? Thirty-five per cent is foreign owned, part of which is American.

“So, if I understand this logic correctly: You can't have American money coming in to threaten our American money. That would be so un-American . . . I mean, Canadian.”

The complainant, Allen Sorensen, wrote March 22 to say Stroumboulopoulos was “mocking” those “questioning the sources of the funding that the Suzuki Foundation receives.”

Sorensen noted that Stroumboulopoulos is a member of the Foundation's board. He asserted that the program remarks violated CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices concerning the expression of opinion and issues involving conflict of interest. In making his assertions, Sorensen pointed to a YouTube video online in which Stroumboulopoulos is “abundantly clear” in expressing his support for the Foundation.

Sorensen said it was unclear how Stroumboulopoulos was categorized at CBC but that he had blurred the lines between his journalism and his activism.

Jennifer Dettman, the head of CBC Factual Entertainment, wrote back May 14. She said CBC did not any longer market Stroumboulopoulos as a journalist, “although he may on occasion do journalism.” Rather, he was a broadcaster, but even within the journalistic policy he was permitted to make “judgment calls.”

She explained: “In other words, they are free to reach conclusions, to develop a point of view, if you will, based on facts, on the evidence they collect. That was the case here. While you are right that CBC policy expects journalists to refrain from expressing their own views or advocating a point of view, it does not preclude experienced journalists from bringing their knowledge and background to bear on a controversial issue and drawing conclusions based on that evidence.”

Dettman acknowledged Stroumboulopoulos was one of 13 on the board of the David Suzuki Foundation. “In the event the program carries a story about (or closely related to) the Foundation, we expect Mr. Stroumboulopoulos, in addition to following CBC's strict journalistic values, to openly declare his interest by telling viewers that he is on the board. That way they can reach their own conclusions about the content of the story. I believe you will find on those few occasions when he has done interviews about or related to the Foundation, he has been forthright about his connection.”

Sorensen wrote back May 23, noted that CBC continued to promote Stroumboulopoulos as a journalist on its website. He asked for a review of the complaint because he was dissatisfied with CBC's response.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for independence from economic lobbies and influences and fair, even-handed treatment of subjects. It requires of its journalism “professional judgment based on facts and expertise,” but it also permits expressions of opinion by commentators.

The policy notes: “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 jurisdiction of the Office of the Ombudsman, recently revised by the CBC board of directors, permits the review of news and information “content” that appears within programming not directed by CBC News.

Conclusion

I can sympathize with some of the confusion and frustration involving this matter. CBC — but not CBC News — has promoted George Stroumboulopoulos as one of Canada's leading journalists. CBC News asserts he is primarily a “broadcaster” who occasionally does journalism. His program is not considered a news and current affairs show but “factual entertainment” subject to policy only when it features “journalistic activities.” The policy permits the drawing of conclusions, but the distinction with simply expressing opinions can be blurry.

That being said, I did not find his remarks about those who oppose the environmentalists on the pipeline issue to be outside of CBC policy that permits judgment based on expertise and insight. The remarks were grounded in an understanding of the issue and any lightheartedness did not step over the line or take factual liberties with what had been the Senator's initial outspokenness.

Nor did I agree that, in this instance, Stroumboulopoulos' involvement with the David Suzuki Foundation needed to be declared. CBC takes measures to mitigate his conflict when his

broadcasting more clearly intersects with his Foundation role. When there is a conflict, a declaration to the audience can help. But his mention of the Foundation in the context of the letter-writing campaign by environmental groups was a very minor and benign element of a broad segment. He even acknowledged environmentalists might be those with whom one might readily disagree. (As an aside, his presence in a YouTube video was not germane to any review of CBC content.)

There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman