Achieving Balance: One point of view at a time works

The complainant, Jon Melanson, once again thought CBC programming showed a left-wing bias. In this case, he cited an interview about corporate tax evasion. He thought that it was inappropriate to have only interviewed someone from a critical perspective. He particularly objected because the interviewee was the head of Canadians for Tax Fairness, a group supported by unions. He might have a case if the program had not followed up with other content that supplied other perspectives on the matter. CBC policy on balance allows for the expression of a variety of views over a reasonable period of time.

COMPLAINT

On The Sunday Edition of March 16, 2014, Michael Enright interviewed the Executive Director of Canadians for Tax Fairness about corporate tax evasion. You had several concerns about the interview. You thought “Mr. Enright’s bias was on full display when The Sunday Edition ventured into the world of international corporate taxation.”

You chose to reproduce parts of a column written by Terence Corcoran in the Financial Post as the basis of the complaint, although you did not attribute them to him. You shared his views that Mr. Howlett was not qualified to speak to the subject as he is “not a tax specialist.” In Mr. Corcoran’s words, reproduced in your letter:

Dennis Howlett is not a tax specialist, let alone a corporate tax expert. He’s a long time social activist who has held a variety of posts, including executive director of the National Anti-Poverty Organization. He’s been a relentless campaigner over decades for social justice, wealth distribution and soak-the-rich government intervention.

You thought it was deceptive not to provide Mr. Howlett’s background. You thought his organization, Canadians for Tax Fairness, was also not properly identified as left wing and aligned with unions, or a “union front,” as you put it. You considered the entire interview totally one-sided; again borrowing Mr. Corcoran’s words, you thought it contained facts that were “mangled” and had “hidden objectives.”

Your final objection, as was the column’s, was that Mr. Enright ended the interview by informing the audience that the program had made repeated requests for an interview on the subject with then (now deceased) Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, but were turned down. You dismissed this, again using Mr. Corcoran’s words, as a “typical CBC public affairs show gambit.” From the March 20 Financial Post column reproduced in your letter:

The parallel would be to end an interview with a Moscow university professor who denounced the United States as an aggressive warmonger with a note that ‘we tried to get Mr. Obama to respond, but his office declined.’ In other words, no effort was made to get another opinion.

MANGEMENT RESPONSE

The executive producer of The Sunday Edition, Susan Mahoney, responded to your concerns. She rejected your characterization of the segment on corporate tax avoidance as biased and deceptive:

That the advocacy group Canadians for Tax Fairness is supported by Canadian unions or that Mr. Howlett, the organization’s executive director, was a social activist for many years does not, as you suggest it does, detract from his credibility or diminish his knowledge or the clarity of his views.

She rejected your claim that the show made no effort to get another opinion. She explained that in a six-month period, the program made frequent attempts to get an interview with former finance minister Jim Flaherty as well as Kerry-Lynne Findlay, the minister of revenue. She added that after the broadcast of March 16, the program did receive a statement from Ms. Findlay, referring to an interview request they had made for the new finance minister, Joe Oliver. The statement was read on the program the following Sunday, March 23.

Ms. Mahoney told you that this is a “complex and controversial issue,” and that the program intended to return to the subject in the near future and would seek out other views. She explained that CBC has an obligation laid out in its journalistic standards and practices to broadcast a range of views on topics like this one, but that its obligation was not necessarily to do it in the same broadcast: “Balance can be achieved over a series of programs or over a period time and we are doing that.”

REVIEW

Ms. Mahoney is correct when she states that CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices allows for balance over a period of time:

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.

The value of Fairness calls for the even handed treatment of varying points of view.

You are correct that the interview of March 16 did not provide a range of views. It was a discussion about corporate tax avoidance from a particular point of view. If that had been all the program did, there might be reason for concern. But in a reasonable period of time, two other perspectives were added. The week after the interview with the executive director of Canadians for Tax Fairness, Mr. Enright read a statement from the Minister of National Revenue about the subject. He linked it directly back to the discussion the week before:

As I mentioned, we have made repeated requests, for interviews with Kerry-Lynne Findlay, Canada's Minister of National Revenue, and with former Minister of Finance, Jim Flaherty.

This week, Minister Findlay declined once again, referring us to the newly-appointed Finance Minister, Joe Oliver. As she suggested, we have requested an interview with Minister Oliver.

Kerry Anne Findlay did issue the following statement:

QUOTE – “Taxpayers are entitled to structure their affairs to pay the least amount of tax permissible within the object, spirit and purpose of the Income Tax Act. All resident corporations, except registered charities, have to file a T2 return for every tax year, even if there is no tax payable. This includes: non-profit organizations; tax-exempt corporations; and inactive corporations.”

The statement continues:

“Companies are free to invest their money where they choose, so long as they report the associated income. It is legal to have accounts in foreign jurisdictions. Holding a foreign bank account does not necessarily mean that tax avoidance or evasion has occurred.

Tax evasion, and Aggressive Tax Planning, represent a threat to our tax base and it is therefore a priority to crack down on tax evasion and tax avoidance.

Tax evasion and Aggressive Tax Planning place an unfair burden on law-abiding businesses and individual taxpayers and businesses, and it jeopardizes the integrity of Canada's tax base.

It also means there is less money for programs and services in your community. These revenues fund programs and services such as health care, childcare, pensions, as well as urban and rural infrastructure projects that benefit all Canadians.” End quote.

It is notable some of the things you dismiss as left wing and misleading are repeated by Ms. Findlay: that tax evasion and “aggressive tax planning” is of concern and places an unfair burden on and jeopardizes Canada’s tax base. The Canada Revenue Agency’s website makes similar statements and identifies tax avoidance as a serious issue. The OECD has proposed a series of measures to deal with the global phenomenon.

But not everyone has the same perspective, and a point of view of the corporate community was addressed in an interview with former finance minister John Manley, who is now the chief executive officer of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. Mr. Manley addressed the question of taxation and corporate contributions to federal revenues. He brought a different perspective and facts to the issue.

The Sunday Edition fulfilled its obligation to present multiple views on the subject within a reasonable period of time. CBC, through its other platforms and programs, presents a range of views and perspectives on business and finance. For example, Kevin O’Leary, a strong and articulate proponent of business interests and someone with a laissez-faire perspective, is the co-host of a daily program and appears regularly as a commentator on CBC News Network.

You express cynicism about the claim that repeated attempts were made to seek accountability from various government ministers. Government ministers and others in positions of responsibility and who have accountability for public policy clearly have a choice about whether to engage in media discussion. That they frequently choose not to is well documented and not a problem particular to CBC. In 2010, nine Canadian journalism organizations published an open letter stating that the government under Stephen Harper had slowed the flow of information to a trickle. The fact that it is difficult to obtain that perspective poses a challenge to programmers and journalists. They can’t let it become a kind of de facto censorship, deciding that in the absence of that voice they no longer can tackle a particular subject. They do have an obligation to find other ways to seek out that perspective. But it is reasonable to first seek out the individuals who are most accountable, and it is allowable under journalistic policy to simply state they have turned down the request.

You also thought it was devious to fail to identify the Canadians for Tax Fairness as a left leaning organization. In fact, CBC practice is to avoid using “left wing” and “right wing” as descriptors, but to let audience members come to their own conclusions about what a speaker has to say. The requirement to identify which organization the interviewee represented was fulfilled. What CBC journalistic policy does say about identifying the association of interviewees is this:

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 subsequent discussion that arose from the interview with Dennis Howlett, Mr. Enright described his organization as an “advocacy group.” I think that is a reasonable way to characterize it and an important piece of information. He should have done so on the March 16 episode as well.

Overall, listeners to The Sunday Edition over a period of a month would have found more than one perspective on the question of tax avoidance. There was no violation of CBC policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman