Canada-China investment treaty

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant felt CBC’s coverage of an investment treaty with China was inadequate. The review found it fair and balanced. How much is enough is up to programmers.

In early September of 2011, Canada and the People’s Republic of China signed an investment treaty. The fact was reported, but no details were made public. At the end of the month, the Government tabled the treaty and made the details public. According to regulations, the treaty had to be before the House of Commons for 21 days before it could be ratified. There was not much in the way of public reaction until Opposition members raised concerns about the terms and conditions at the end of October.

You felt that CBC was negligent because there was no coverage before the issue was raised in the House. “The trade deal has an enormous impact on Canada and the way Canadians will be able to determine their economic future. Yet CBC decided to keep Canadians in the dark.” You felt the reporting that was done was “too little too late.” You also cited a panel discussion on Power & Politics which you felt did not adequately represent the opposition to the investment agreement.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

After some delay, Todd Spencer, Executive Director of CBC News Network, responded. He apologized for the lateness of the reply. He pointed out that across CBC platforms — on line, on The Current and on The House — there were various treatments of this issue.

As for the panel you watched on Power & Politics, he pointed out that the three regular contributors to that particular feature all come from a different perspective so that there were differing opinions on the treaty. “Their discussion highlighted a number of concerns about the deal expressed by the opposition and some that had not been.” As well, he pointed out that at the time of the signing, no details were publicly available, and therefore no substantive analysis was possible. When you wrote again rejecting his explanation, he wrote you again, stating “you clearly believe we could have done more, and I do apologize we haven’t met your expectations.” He said he would work with the Ottawa bureau to assess what else they could have done.

Generally speaking, the Ombudsman reviews a complaint based on what has been published or broadcast, and does not pass judgment on what has not been done. That is because the news department has complete independence in its day to day decision making. An omission would be relevant only if it could be shown to be systematic, thereby creating an imbalance and lack of fairness, or if coverage completely ignored a particular relevant point of view or position that would help Canadians form their own judgments.

You assert that the absence of reporting in the weeks after the treaty was signed is a sign of bias. I do not accept that position. News departments have limited time and budgets — they are constantly making judgments about what stories to do, what issues or topics merit deeper investigative treatment. One could argue as you do that this treaty did merit that extra digging so Canadians could find out about it sooner. That is entirely a judgment call. The fact is that when the details were made public, and critics both inside and outside government raised concerns, CBC news covered the story and provided a range of views on the impact and potential hazards and advantages of the terms of the agreement. It is your view it was not enough. But it is not a violation of policy.

I note the treaty has not yet been ratified by cabinet. News departments can always challenge themselves to follow up and dig deeper. Mr. Spencer indicated in his second letter to you that he will review the coverage with his staff. Perhaps your inquiries will lead them to follow the story more closely as it evolves. I believe that is a fair and adequate response.

Esther Enkin CBC Ombudsman