An Issue of Accuracy: Of course it always has to be right but there are times you can let an interviewee get away with a different take

The complainant, Hugh Blakeney, was concerned that a passing reference to a former minister in Tommy Douglas’s government in Saskatchewan distorted the truth about Walter Erb’s role in the implementation of medicare in the early 60s. The reference to the past was in a piece about Erb’s nephew. The story featured Bob Erb who has been giving away a significant part of his 25 million dollar lottery winnings. He invoked the spirit of his uncle and Tommy Douglas to explain his social conscience. Only problem is, Bob’s uncle actually quit the cabinet before medicare was passed. Mr. Blakeney faulted the reporter for not jumping in and setting the record straight, or leaving out the reference. If this had been a look at medicare or the struggle to implement it, he would be right. Accuracy is a critical value, but nothing is absolute. Bob Erb was talking about how he sees the legacy, and it was reasonable to leave it in this context.

COMPLAINT

Over the holiday season, on December 16, The National ran a feature on Bob Erb, a resident of Terrace, British Columbia, focusing on his acts of kindness and generosity. Mr. Erb won a 25 million dollar lottery in 2012 and has been supporting individuals and community groups ever since. In the spirit of the season, reporter Reg Sherren featured Mr. Erb and some of the people he has assisted.

One of the things Sherren explored in the piece was what motivated Erb to give away a substantial part of his winnings; the “philosophy of Bob,” as he put it. Mr. Sherren refers to Erb’s prairie upbringing, and Erb adds that his uncle was a member of Tommy Douglas’s government when medicare legislation was introduced in Saskatchewan. The feature moved on from there.

You strongly objected to this reference to Walter Erb and the fact that Mr. Sherren did not challenge it, leaving the impression that Walter Erb was a supporter of medicare. You pointed out that the minister resigned from cabinet and crossed the floor to the opposition in the thick of the struggle to implement the legislation at a time when there was significant resistance to it. The reference in this piece would have been great, you said, “had Walter Erb been a believer in the values of Medicare. But the facts don’t support that gloss. The CBC should make a modest effort to check its facts.”

You felt very strongly that the impression left by this passing reference is inaccurate and never should have been included in the piece:

It links Walter Erb to Douglas; it links Walter Erb to Medicare. By doing so in the context of discussing values, the clear implication is that Walter, too, shared these values. He did not. He fought Medicare in a spectacular if unsuccessful way. As he opposed the values of Bob Erb and Douglas, the decision to include him in this short, pithy exchange, is puzzling.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The executive producer of The National, Mark Harrison, responded to your concern. Mr. Harrison said the reference to Walter Erb was a brief one just noting the relationship, in the context of explaining the philosophy of a man who has given away eight million dollars. “To be clear, Mr. Sherren’s story was not about Walter Erb, but about Walter Erb’s nephew, Bob Erb.” And within this context of a brief mention, the reporter and Mr. Erb were talking about the “values of Saskatchewan and Tommy Douglas.” He concluded by saying:

You are concerned that we did not give a fair representation of the history of Walter Erb and attributed that to slough. However, this was a story about the good deeds of his nephew, Bob. We would have gone into greater detail about Walter Erb's role in history if he had a larger role in the story.

REVIEW

The story broadcast about Bob Erb is a lighthearted tribute to a man who is giving away a significant part of his money. It is newsworthy because it is so unusual. The segment runs about nine minutes and in the course of it, reporter Reg Sherren explores what is the philosophy behind Erb’s generosity:

REG SHERREN: Bob believes in giving and he's been a busy boy. There's been hundreds of thousands of dollars for everyone from the Salvation Army, the hospital, food banks, soup kitchens, 300,000 dollars in dental work for those who couldn't afford it, cars for single working moms, trucks for friends with struggling businesses, money for people whose phones were being cut off. The total so far, a whopping eight million dollars. It all comes down, says Bob, to his hardy Saskatchewan upbringing.

BOB ERB: My uncle Walter, he was the minister of health for Tommy Douglas in '61 when medicare was introduced.

REG SHERREN: I guess that Tommy rubbed off on you?

BOB ERB: Well, I don't know. You know, I always root for the underdog, you know, and…

REG SHERREN: Look out for the little guy?

BOB ERB: Yeah, and … and, you know, help somebody that their lot in life is not as fortunate as yours.

From there the story moves on to showcase the specific acts of kindness and conversation with the grateful recipients. The exchange is very brief – it invokes the spirit of mutual help that prairie society is known for, and Tommy Douglas and the birth of medicare, one of the events that defines Canada. I sympathize with your concern that this leaves the impression that Walter Erb was one of its champions. CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices emphasizes accuracy:

We seek out the truth in all matters of public interest. We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.

One could argue that there can be no compromise with the truth, although it is never an absolute thing. But context does matter. This is a gentle feature about a man who is doing a lot of good. And so I sympathize with Mr. Sherren as well. To intervene at that point to say that in fact Bob Erb’s uncle Walter actually quit the cabinet while the medicare debate was raging would have taken a very focused story in an entirely different direction.

He would have had to explain, in the interests of both accuracy and fairness, that Walter Erb served as public health minister under Douglas, but Douglas resigned and Woodrow Lloyd became premier, as you mentioned in your emails. According to the publication Saskatchewan Politicians: Lives Past and Present, Lloyd moved Erb out of the health portfolio to the Ministry of Public Works, which Erb considered a demotion. The entry on Erb also notes the two men distrusted each other. It also says that his defection “significantly threatened the implementation of the program.”

Were this a feature on medicare, or Walter Erb, all of this would be highly relevant. But as Mr. Harrison pointed out to you, it was not. Bob Erb, subject of this feature, mentioned that his uncle served with Tommy Douglas during the introduction of medicare. The precision of the historical record is important, and clearly very important to you. Mr. Sherren could have chosen to edit the reference out and found another way to convey the importance of his Saskatchewan heritage to Bob Erb. But this is also how Bob Erb sees his uncle and the legacy he takes from it, and that is the context here. What is being conveyed is not Walter Erb’s values, but those of his nephew, and this is how he chose to express it.

You are correct that the statement leaves an inaccurate impression, but it is not untrue that Walter Erb was in Tommy Douglas’s cabinet and this has a special meaning to his nephew. Even though I find that you are likely technically correct, it is hard to characterize this as a serious breach of policy. I say likely because while it is not in dispute that the timing and actions hampered medicare legislation, I would not presume to pass judgment on Walter Erb’s values. It is understandable why the reporter chose not to elaborate on Bob Erb’s statement, and to leave the matter there.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman