Providing credentials: How much information is enough?

The complainant, Jim Vibert, thought CBC Halifax was withholding important information and inaccurately describing the commentator they used on the election broadcast. He was described as a former finance minister in the provincial NDP government. The complainant thought it should have been clear that the government still existed and so the commentator was still a serving cabinet minister in a portfolio other than Finance. He thought CBC was trying to minimize partisanship. It was wrong not to describe the former minister by his current portfolio. But on the larger issue of providing information necessary for viewers to assess his credibility, there was no violation of policy. The fact that he was a minister and his party affiliation was mentioned was the relevant information.

COMPLAINT

One of the participants in CBC Nova Scotia’s election night coverage was Graham Steele. Mr. Steele served in the NDP government as Minister of Finance, and at the time of the election, as Minister of Economic and Rural Development. He provided analysis of the results throughout the broadcast.

While you had no objection to Mr. Steele’s participation, you strongly objected to the way he was represented:

“But they identify him as former NDP finance minister. Seems like they want to separate him from the government he will remain a member of until a new government is sworn in. He is not reoffering, but remains a member of cabinet for another week or 10 days. It seems like they are trying to distance their commentator from the government, in order to justify or establish his non partisan position. I have no problem with Mr. Steele or his participation, but it is duplicitous for the news program not to fully identify the commentator’s current position.”

You felt by not identifying the minister as a member of a government that would be in power for the next 10 days, the journalists did not provide viewers with the information they needed to form an opinion about Mr. Steele’s remarks. You consider this an unethical practice: “Failure to provide your audience with full information about the current position of a commentator is deceiving the audience.” You think it necessary to provide all “relevant information it has on every story” to maintain the credibility of CBC News.

You were concerned, as well, that the way Mr. Steele was described was in an effort to distance him from the government “in order to justify or establish his non partisan position.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Senior Managing Director for Atlantic Canada, Andrew Cochran, replied to your concerns. He agreed that Mr. Steele was still a member of the Executive Council because he had not yet been replaced by a new minister. But it was equally accurate, he added, to say that he was a “former NDP finance minister” because he was no longer in that portfolio. He agreed it would have been “useful” to refer to Mr. Steele as an outgoing NDP minister as well. He explained that in the context of a live broadcast, where it became apparent early on that the current government was defeated, characterizing him as a former minister was acceptable and not misleading:

I believe it reasonable to believe the audience would not be thinking of any member of the NDP government as other than being part of a "former" government, despite the legal niceties that ministers of the crown only cease their watch with the swearing-in of their replacements.“

He also rejected the idea that CBC News was trying to characterize Mr. Steele as a non-partisan participant:

By times through the broadcast he was referred to as one who had served multiple terms, one who had been a senior member of the NDP government, one who had served as finance minister amongst other portfolios. His analysis of the factors contributing to the defeat of the government were framed this way. While I believe Mr. Steele showed considerable insight regarding the positions and circumstances for all parties, and generally presented his comments without an overt display of partisanship, I find no basis for your suggestion that we were somehow trying to present Mr. Steele as a non-partisan. He was clearly and consistently identified as a prominent member of the NDP.”

REVIEW

CBC News has policy that addresses the information required to identify a program participant. The policy on “Identifying Interviewees” states:

We are open and straightforward when we present interviewees and their statements. We make every effort to disclose the identity of interviewees and to give the context and explanations necessary for the audience to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements. In exceptional cases and for serious cause, we may decide to withhold such information in whole or in part. In such cases we explain the situation to the audience without disclosing the information that must be kept secret.

In the case of the election night broadcast, Mr. Steele was identified as a member of the New Democratic Party and a former minister in its government. Given that his NDP affiliation was mentioned, it is hard to see how this establishes him as non-partisan. In the context of political analysis, a viewer or listener would have the necessary information to understand the perspective he brought to the discussion.

While it would have been more precise to refer to him as a minister in the current or outgoing government, the relevant information about his background was given. It was a strange decision to identify him by a previous ministry and not his most recent appointment. This was an error, and in future, when relevant, it would be appropriate to disclose his last portfolio. This error is regrettable, but the information given provided enough information so that the audience would be able “to judge the relevance and credibility” of the commentator’s analysis.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman