Ocean fertilization project

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The Chair of the Board of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation complained that As It Happens’ coverage of his company’s project on ocean fertilization was biased and full of inaccuracies. The coverage met all standards.

In your role as Chair of the Board of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation (HSRC) and its chief scientist, you complained that As It Happens’ October 2012 coverage of your company’s project on ocean fertilization was biased and full of inaccuracies. While host Carol Off did interview both critics and the President of HRSC you felt that the interviews were inherently biased.

You took issue with allowing a critic of the project to speak first, and to go unchallenged: “Only following outrageous misinformation featured in the first interview did they come to our president. The character of the interview questions to our president were challenging and clearly gave the impression that the CBC accepted as fact the misinformation they had broadcast in the first program clearly with no effort to fact check or even question the veracity of the statements.” You were particularly concerned and sent this complaint when another CBC program, the fifth estate, also expressed interest in doing a story about your company and its work. On January 25, 2013, you wrote that the CBC coverage has caused discord in the Haida Gwaii communities: “This discord and unrest in the community continues unabated and as you might surmise is being intensely agitated by the presence of the CBC News in the same communities this week.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Robin Smythe, the Executive Producer of As It Happens, responded to your concerns. She rejected that there was any bias in As It Happens’ coverage. She pointed out that over a five-day period, a week of broadcasts, the program did five interviews on the ocean fertilization project. She pointed out that two of those interviews were with John Disney, the President of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation. She felt he had adequate opportunity to address the concerns raised by critics of the project. “I should also note that because we are a daily program, and we follow news stories as they develop, we recognize that we cannot always present all sides of a single issue in the same program so we endeavour to get all sides on air as quickly as possible...“ She also rejected the idea that there was no fact checking involved: “with respect to your suggestion that we made no effort to check fact[s], the effort we went to in recording those interviews was entirely in the service of bringing the facts of this story to light.”

REVIEW

The Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation has been involved in a project known as ocean fertilization. It has been characterized as “geo-engineering,” a term you feel is pejorative and not accurate. The goal of ocean fertilization is to boost the plankton growth in the ocean, with the goal of stimulating fish stocks, in this case salmon, and to capture carbon dioxide, thereby helping to counteract global warming.

The community of Old Massett endorsed the project and secured its funding. The unemployment rate in the village has risen to 70% with the collapse of the salmon fishery. The fishery is more than a way of making a living – for members of this community it is a way of life and has cultural underpinnings as well.

There was also a possibility that the endeavour could generate income through the sale of carbon credits. In the summer of 2012, HSRC introduced more than 100 tonnes of an iron sulphate mix into the sea about 200 kilometres west of Haida Gwaii, where the currents took it and spread it over a wide swath of ocean. The iron created a large plankton bloom the company says attracted a wide variety of marine life. A great deal of data has been and continues to be generated and is being analyzed by the Corporation.

The impact on the salmon fishery will take longer to assess. When details of the project became known in early October, it generated a great deal of controversy – both over the science and efficacy of the activity and its outcome, as well as its legality both in Canada and in international law.

The story was brought to the media’s attention by an organization called ETC Group, an international group that monitors the impacts of technology on ecology. It appears the first stories about it were published in the British newspaper The Guardian. As It Happens picked up the story on October 15, with an interview with Jim Thomas, a spokesman for ETC Group. He raised questions about the science of the project, as well as whether it was in violation of international treaties, and if the government of Canada had been aware of and had approved the enterprise. As is often the case, the answers were complex. The situation was further complicated because the International Conference on Biodiversity, which has conventions dealing with ocean fertilization, was meeting at the time. The issue became front and centre on many levels.

CBC journalistic policy is clear on how to handle controversial and complex matters:

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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 first interview done clearly only represented one side of the story. The last thing Ms Off said in that interview was that “we will see if we can get some answers about who knew what when.” She indicated that the program was unable to bring the full story. In a breaking story like this, it is understood that a range of views should be presented in as short a time period as possible.

In the next day’s broadcast, the president of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, John Disney, was able to explain the reasons for the project, what had happened so far and to fully put the case and answer most of the points raised in the previous interview. Although you say Ms Off showed bias in her questioning, I found no evidence of this. Her questions were appropriate, largely open-ended and Mr. Disney was given reasonable opportunity to respond. If you go to the show’s website to access the story – depending on the first place you land, there is a link to the opposing interview.

The next day the program read a statement from Environment Canada, which said no permit had been issued for the ocean fertilization and that in the department’s opinion, the project had contravened various laws. As a result of that development, Mr. Disney was interviewed a second time the next day, and again was able to put the HSRC case that the project was legal and approved, both nationally and internationally through the United Nations.

To “seek divergent views” the program also sought comment from members and representatives of the Haida who were not as supportive of the project as many of the people of Old Massett. The role of the interviewer, especially in a daily program like As It Happens, is to elicit the facts from the divergent players, and to respectfully give them an opportunity to lay out their case. Where appropriate, she may probe and test those assumptions, or go to another guest to seek the counterpoint. Over a week of programming, As It Happens fulfilled its obligation to present multiple points of view and to hear from the major players in what was an evolving and contentious story. There was no violation of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices.

This is an ongoing story. Environment Canada launched an investigation of the incident in October. Presumably, at some point, the findings of that inquiry will be made public. The Haida Salmon Restoration Corporate continues to gather and analyze data from the test site. One supposes that those results will also be made public. In the interests of balance and fairness, I strongly urge As It Happens and CBC News to monitor developments and report on them as appropriate.

Esther Enkin CBC Ombudsman