Caution: Elections change the rules for achieving balance

Ottawa Morning took the show on the road to Aylmer, Quebec during the Gatineau municipal election. They talked about issues in the election with citizens and to one incumbent city councillor. Mike Duggan defeated that incumbent in the election and is now the councillor for that ward. Before the election he complained that the program was unfair because none of the other candidates were interviewed or mentioned. The program did not want to do an election style program. They should have waited until after the election if that was the choice. It was unfair to give air time to only one candidate in the middle of the campaign.

COMPLAINT

You are now a city councillor representing Ward 2 who won a seat at city council in the Gatineau municipal election held November 3, 2013. The CBC morning show Ottawa Morning broadcast from Aylmer, a community that is part of Gatineau, during the election campaign on October 25.

The program did a feature interview with the then sitting city councillor from your ward. You felt that this was unfair and biased reporting “or maybe it is just incompetence...” You felt you had been “disadvantaged and hold your publicly funded organization responsible” because this was “a campaign style event but (CBC) only invited incumbent city councillors to participate.” You considered that CBC had “interfered in the municipal election here in Gatineau by favouring some candidates over others during a press event held last week.”

MANAGEMENT REPLY

The Managing Director for Ottawa, Jane Anido, replied to your complaint. She explained the broadcast was “never intended to be a campaign related event.” She explained that the program was one of a series where the host, Robyn Bresnahan, and the team from Ottawa Morning visited neighbourhoods in the Ottawa area to explore the community and talk about the issues important to the people there. She mentioned that:

“In each case, we assembled a panel of sitting councillors to talk about key issues. You were not invited to be part of the panel in Aylmer because you were not a sitting council member. In the end, two of the Aylmer councillors were unable to attend. The councillor Robyn did interview turned out to be the person you defeated in the November 3 election.”

She did not consider that the program had interfered in the Gatineau election.

REVIEW

Ottawa Morning went to Aylmer with the same programming goals it had for the other two “Robyn in the Hood” programs they had previously featured. The program explored neighbourhoods and raised the issues that were of concern to residents. In the case of the Aylmer broadcast, they did so in the context of a campaign where the issues raised were the same ones candidates would be discussing with voters. In setting up her Aylmer portion of the broadcast Ms. Bresnahan says:

“I’ve left the studio. I've hit the road. I'm hanging out in a different neighbourhood today – Aylmer. A different province, a different official language, a different way of life. And that creates a unique set of challenges. This hour – there's an election on, and transportation is the doorstep issue...”

She goes on to mention issues of development and infrastructure, as well as the “unique reality of living…in a truly bilingual community.”

Much of the coverage looked at aspects of these subjects through the eyes of residents. There was also an interview with the incumbent councillor of Ward 2, the seat you now occupy. Andre Laframboise was invited, along with two other sitting councillors, to participate in a panel discussion. One was ill and one declined. This is how Ms. Bresnahan introduced her interview with the councillor:

“As Gatineau enters the final stretch of the municipal election being held here on November third, how do councillors plan to deal with that issue as well as others at the ballot box? Well, I am standing right by with one of them…”

She goes on to introduce Mr. Laframboise and explain why he is the only one participating in the interview. They discuss a range of issues, including reaction from the voters he has been talking to. She concludes the interview by saying:

“We have just one minute left. But now’s your time…why should people vote for you?”

I understand from the producer of the program they did not intend this to be a show about the Gatineau municipal election. They interviewed city councillors as a way to talk to people who are informed about the issues of the area. She and the program staff failed to properly take into account that they were dealing with politicians and issues in the midst of a campaign. Even if Ms. Bresnahan stayed away from any mention of the campaign, the context is politicized. But she overtly brought it into the discussion.

CBC Journalistic Policy on fairness and balance asks that a range of perspectives be presented over a reasonable period of time. It is understood that the time frame during an election is much shorter than in a normal news period.

The election policy spells out the need for balance and equitable, not equal, treatment:

Canadians expect us to provide a wide range of information and context so that they can make decisions during election and referendum campaigns.

We ensure that the facts and analysis we present on issues, candidates and parties is timely, accurate, fair and balanced over the course of the campaign.

We give all candidates, parties and issues equitable treatment. This does not necessarily mean equal broadcast time.

The Ottawa Morning broadcast failed to live up to this standard, and was in violation of policy. It is important for programmers to take into account the broader context, no matter what the specific program goals.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman