An Issue with At Issue

The complainant, Ron Faris, had concerns about lack of balance in The National’s political affairs panel, At Issue. He thought that the panelists were supporters of the Liberal and Conservative parties and that there needed to be someone to speak for the NDP. I found that the panelists were non-partisan, that the discussions were not based on party positions, but analysis of them, and the analysis provided came from a range of perspectives.

COMPLAINT

You are concerned that the weekly political affairs panel on The National, At Issue, is too narrow in its perspective. You think it should include “the social democratic perspective of the federal Official Opposition.”

As an example of this bias, you cited the At Issue panel of September 12th. The panel was discussing a recently held NDP caucus meeting. Host Peter Mansbridge observed that the gathering had not received much media attention, possibly because other events of the week (chemical weapons in Syria and the Quebec Charter) had dominated the headlines. He played a clip of NDP leader Thomas Mulcair attacking Justin Trudeau, the Liberal party leader. He then asked the panelists why he might have done so.

A discussion ensued about the challenge facing the NDP in the next election, what tactics and strategy might work, and how the party would approach Trudeau. You pointed out this ignored the wide range of policy discussion at the party caucus. You also felt it was unfair to focus in on the leadership issue, when Mr. Mulcair’s position was completely ignored in a previous part of the panel discussion that night. The panel had talked about the impact and political ramifications of the Parti Quebecois introduction of its Charter of Rights. You wrote:

To select a short clip of Tom Mulcair revealing the absence of accomplishment of Justin at the conclusion of several days of policy discussions where the NDP caucus has discussed economic, and social issues such as the PQ charter of Values - and Tom Mulcair has come out clearly and passionately against the Charter (Chantal claimed Justin is the leader on the issue!), and for revelation of important economic issues in the coming months is to ignore the clear, social democratic alternatives facing Canadians.”

This was an example of what you consider a built-in bias of this weekly feature of The National because of the background of the panelists. You think there should be a “journalist/ pollster/commentator of social democratic persuasion on the panel”:

It is predictable that Andrew - a self-confessed conservative, Bruce a pollster for the Liberals, and Chantal, a journalist with the historically Liberal Toronto Star, will express support for either the federal Conservative or Liberal parties/leaders.”

You were referring to the regular At Issue panelists: Andrew Coyne, a national columnist for the National Post, Chantal Hébert, a columnist for the Toronto Star, Le Devoir and L’Actualité and Bruce Anderson, who has his own public opinion research firm called Anderson Insight. The panel airs regularly on Thursday nights on The National and the panelists address the major political stories in the news. Its website states that it is “Canada's most-watched political panel (which) presents a mix of opinion and analysis to all that happens on Parliament Hill.” In fact it ranges further afield to discuss various issues that have impact on Canadian politics and public policy.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The National, Mark Harrison, responded to your concerns. He explained that the participants in the At Issue panel were chosen because they are “experienced political analysts” and they do not take a party line in their analyses of the issues:

The panelists are selected because of their extensive knowledge of national and regional political strategy and tactics, as well as the insight and intelligent reflection they can bring to a discussion of the issues.”

He added that the panelists are not chosen for their alignment with one party or another, but because they present diverse views, which is what makes the discussions engaging. He also rejected your characterization of each of the panel members:

Regular panelist Andrew Coyne, for example, may be seen as holding broadly conservative views, but he certainly is not a booster of the Conservative Party. In fact, he could be seen as the government’s harshest critic on the panel. Although you identify Bruce Anderson as a Liberal because he polls for the Liberal Party; in fact, you will find he has worked for both the Liberal and Conservative parties. The Toronto Star carries Chantal Hebert’s column, but that does not mean she shares the newspaper’s editorial position. Identifying them as political partisans is as untrue as it is unfair.”

He did not agree that the panelists only expressed their personal political views.

REVIEW

The CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices sets criteria for balance and fairness. Fairness is defined by the “even handed” treatment of individuals and organizations. The value of balance is characterized by a reflection of a variety of perspectives, over a reasonable period of time:

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

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. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.”

The National has a number of set venues for the analysis of politics and public policy issues, aside from its day to day coverage of issues and events as they arise. There is The Insiders panel, whose members dissect political strategy and attempt to bring understanding to the way political decisions and strategies are developed. And while the website says they do so from a “non-partisan perspective, each of the three participants spent their “insiders” career with one of the three principal parties.

The Bottom Line panel, which addresses economic issues and policy, features Jim Stanford, who is an economist with Unifor, the union created through the merger of the United Auto Workers and the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers’ Union.

The program regularly features politicians from all the major political parties. In this way, the views of the NDP, and a social democratic perspective, as you describe it, is reflected on the program. Your complaint that it is not reflected on At Issue and therefore there is systematic bias is not founded on these grounds. The judgment of balance and fairness is taken over time and looking at a range of programming.

You frame the At Issue panel as a partisan one. I see no evidence of that. To judge that it is biased requires accepting your characterization of it as lacking the perspective of the New Democratic Party, but presenting the positions of the Liberal and Conservative parties. Mr. Harrison explained that the panelists are not aligned with specific parties. It is also true that the discussions are not framed along partisan lines. You might want to hear a more spirited defense of the NDP’s positions or a more “social democratic” take on the issues at hand, but the panelists’ role is to provide analysis and background based on the facts at hand.

In the specific week you mentioned, the NDP caucus in Saskatoon was covered on the National on a different night. And elsewhere on the schedule, there was further coverage, as well as Mr. Mulcair’s reaction to the Quebec Charter.

Another CBC policy pertains to the panel, and that addresses the issue of opinion. When featuring guest commentators, the policy states:

“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 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 panel focuses on national politics, but it attempts to do so from a broader perspective than party lines. It may not address the issues you feel deserve more attention, but it cannot be judged on the basis of the analysis provided against party positions on the issues. There is more than one perspective brought to the discussions, and many of the topics discussed are covered elsewhere on the broadcast. For example, you cite the issue of foreign tax havens, and wonder why it was not addressed on the panel. That is a programming decision. The reality is, though, that CBC News has extensively covered off shore tax havens, and uncovered some original stories on the subject.

The National provides a range of views and perspectives, as well as a wide range of treatment of stories dealing with Canadian politics. The At Issue panel is not in violation of CBC journalistic policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman