Interview about Toronto mayor Rob Ford

This complaint involved the choice of guests on a Power and Politics segment about the ongoing controversy involving Toronto’s mayor. The complainant, Carlos Coimbra, thought that the deck was stacked against the mayor because one participant tried to run against Rob Ford and the other was the published of the Toronto Star. But the actual content of the piece presented varying points of view.

COMPLAINT

The CBC devoted considerable coverage, as did most other news outlets, to the ongoing story of a video that purported to show Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine. The story broke in mid-May, with the publication of stories in The Toronto Star and on the website Gawker about the existence of this video which some Toronto Star and Gawker journalists said they had seen. They did not have a copy of the video and until now it has not surfaced. The story took off from there and continued to make headlines for weeks.

As the story unfolded, a number of members of the mayor’s staff left his office, which was one of the elements that fuelled the continuing coverage. On May 31 a sixth staff member resigned and the mayor announced the hiring of three new people. It was that news peg that led Power & Politics, the daily political program on CBC News Network, to convene a panel to talk about the impact these events were having on the ability of the city to get its business done.

You strongly objected to the panelists chosen to have the discussion: John Cruickshank, the Publisher of the Toronto Star, and Rocco Rossi, a former mayoralty candidate in Toronto. You felt that this violated the tenets of fair and balanced journalism because Mr. Rossi was in the same mayoralty race that Mr. Ford subsequently won, and that the Toronto Star has been against the mayor even before this story broke. In other words, both guests were against Mayor Ford. You wrote:

The average dummy would listen to the 2 guys that CBC NN invited to comment on the Rob Ford affair, and consider their opinions valid.

But I, knowing their background, certainly find it completely without justification that they were chosen!

Rocco Rossi, former president of the Liberal party of Ontario, one who may still hold some grudge against Ford, as he was also a candidate for the Mayor's chair, but polled in the low single digits and left the race.

And that's not the worst!

JOHN CRUIKSHANK(!), publisher of the newspaper that's been attacking Ford for years!”

In a subsequent email sent after you received CBC management’s response, you elaborated on the reasons you felt that this was such a biased treatment and that a Rob Ford supporter should have been included:

It is well known that Rob Ford is closer to the Progressive Conservative party than to any other party.

P&P's guest Rocco Rossi is a former president of the Liberal Party of Ontario (unless my memory fails me), a fact which I mentioned in my short off-the-cuff email, but to which Mr. Spencer did not even refer, although it's much more than being a mere "political opponent". So 'a priori', his words should be taken with a grain of salt.

And inviting one who was a rival of the person being discussed, and who, for all the audience knows, might still run for Mayor again against Rob Ford, would naturally require the presence of a Rob Ford supporter for balance.

John Cruikshank is the publisher of a newspaper which has an impeccable allegiance to all things Liberal (with a capital L), and which actively campaigned against Rob Ford, having literally hounded him from when he was still a Councillor, publishing negative and insulting articles by more than six 'journalists', by my count, which recently included calling his Scarborough subway supporters 'rabid residents' and throwing the epithet 'Michelin man' at Rob Ford.”

Since you felt that Todd Spencer, at the time Executive Director of CBC News Network, did not address your concerns adequately, you requested a review.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Mr. Spencer defended the choice of Mr. Rossi and Mr. Cruickshank to participate in this discussion. He pointed out that their participation was just one episode in ongoing coverage of the Ford story, and that many others had also been heard from:

“Since the first reports surfaced in mid-May of a video allegedly showing Mr. Ford smoking crack cocaine, CBC News Network has broadcast the comments of a wide range of people, including vocal critics and stalwart supporters of the mayor. We have also prominently broadcast all denials and other statements by Mr. Ford, himself, including during our afternoon and evening news programs on May 31. Mr. Rossi and Mr. Cruickshank, in other words, were simply two more voices contributing to the overall public discussion.”

He felt the two men were qualified to speak because one “is a close observer of Toronto municipal affairs,” and the other “runs the newspaper that broke the first story about the alleged video.”

He explained that the focus of the piece was whether or not the controversy had affected the ability of the city government to function. In that light, having someone who was a former mayoralty candidate made sense because he would have knowledge of the responsibilities of a large city mayor. He also pointed out that this discussion focused on the impact of the controversy, and that Mr. Rossi and Mr. Cruickshank took opposing views. Mr. Rossi called on the media to back off or come up with proof, and Mr. Cruickshank defended the media’s continued pressing of the issues. Mr. Spencer wrote:

The discussion was non-partisan. Mr. Rossi made it clear several times that he is a political opponent of Mr. Ford's, but that the media shouldn't treat the mayor like a criminal because all people are presumed innocent until proven guilty: ‘Part of this crisis is being intensified by the way the media is going after it,’ Mr. Rossi said. Mr. Cruickshank, meanwhile, blamed the deepening crisis on Mr. Ford's own handling of events, from substance abuse accusations to the sudden departure of several aides: ‘Frankly, the mayor has not effectively addressed the issues that have been raised, and is increasingly unwilling to address any issue,’ Mr. Cruickshank said.”

Mr. Spencer said that CBC was fulfilling its policy obligation to present a wide range of views and opinions so that Canadians could form their own judgments about important issues of the day.

REVIEW

In covering an ongoing story like the controversy around the Toronto mayor there is an obligation to ensure fair coverage over time. It is a story that is far too complex to demand all sides be represented in any given discussion. The relevant policy can be found in the Journalistic Standards and Practices under “mission and values”:

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.

In this instance, the two guests took different positions. The discussion began with an assessment of the ability of the city to continue to function given the distraction of the scandal. Mr. Rossi pushed back on the media frenzy and said the mayor was innocent until proven guilty. He said that he thought for the most part it was business as usual at city hall, “but there are some key files on which we need the mayor’s leadership and those are suffering because the circus that envelops him each and every day not just of his own making but because the free press has turned into the freefull court press and they are at him every single day and every single moment. As opposed to focus on the issues. OK. Show me the video and take the guy to court if there are criminal charges to be made let’s make that happen. And I think it’s a fair question to ask Mr. Ford to ask back to the media. “

Mr. Cruickshank, on the other hand, said: “The genie is out of the bottle, no doubt about that. And frankly the mayor has not shown the ability to put the stopper back in. That is, he has not effectively addressed the issues that have been raised and he is increasingly unwilling to address any issue.”

It appears to me that they are taking quite different positions, and that Mr. Rossi, whatever his past history, is saying the media is in no small measure accountable for any inability to get the business of the city done. He is even more explicit about this when later in the interview he tells Mr. Cruickshank: “You are saying the onus is on him (Mayor Ford) and I’m saying look what’s good for the goose is good for the gander because part of this crisis is being intensified by the way the media is going after it.” Mr. Cruickshank takes the position that the mayor must confront the issues and the press has no choice but to keep pressing him, and that he bears responsibility for the state the city administration finds itself in.

In the context of this interview, two different perspectives were represented.

You also raised the issue of the guests’ affiliations. You are right that that is a consideration. CBC policy states that it is important to let the audience know of those affiliations so that they may judge what they are saying with that knowledge:

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 introduction to the piece mentions that Mr. Rossi was a former mayoralty candidate. He himself references that fact in the course of the discussion. And Mr. Cruickshank was identified as publisher of The Toronto Star. His role in this interview was to present and defend the position taken by his paper and therefore his participation was appropriate.

While you are correct when you mention that Mr. Rossi served as national director of the Liberal Party of Canada in 2009, he also ran as a Progressive Conservative Candidate in the 2011 Ontario provincial election. He explained his reasons for switching allegiance in a National Post piece. I mention this because I think it serves to emphasize the point that he is a man with wide ranging experience and views. And while his past affiliations have some relevance, ultimately the content of the piece is what should be judged.

On that basis, and the fact that this was one episode in the ongoing coverage of the story, there was no violation of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman