Bias in the Eye of the Beholder

The complainant, Jon Melanson, complained about two stories on the CBC News web site. One was about the controversy over the moving expense claim of retired Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie. The other involved a remark by Justin Trudeau about Ukraine which was considered to be inappropriate by some, including Conservative members of parliament and cabinet ministers. Mr. Melanson thought that because Conservative criticism was highlighted in both stories, and NDP criticism wasn’t, this was an indication of bias and was unfair to the Conservative government. I found that the details of the story were appropriately reported and it’s hard to understand how reporting criticism of its political opponents can be an attempt to discredit the government.

COMPLAINT

You are concerned that on two separate occasions CBC News reported Conservative government criticism of figures associated with the Liberal party but did not mention the NDP had criticized them as well. You consider this evidence of systematic bias of CBC News, who you believe only attack Conservatives but are “shielding their brethren,” the NDP.

The first story you referenced was published on February 18, headlined “Justin Trudeau condemns ‘partisan attack’ against Andrew Leslie.” Retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie is a senior advisor to Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau. In the days preceding this CBC story, CTV reported that Leslie had submitted a moving expense claim for $72,000. The Conservative Defense Minister, Rob Nicholson, characterized the expense as excessive and announced he would ask his department to review how it had approved such a large claim for a move within the same city. The government also announced that it would review the perk for retiring military and RCMP officers. The article you cited was Trudeau’s response to the Minister’s statements and his first public defense of his military advisor. He characterized it as a “partisan attack” as did Leslie himself.

The second complaint you made the same day refers to criticism of Mr. Trudeau for remarks he made about the crisis in Ukraine. The Liberal leader was participating in the Radio-Canada program Tout le monde en parle. In answer to a question about whether Canada should do more in Ukraine, Trudeau responded “Canada should do more.” He went on to say (in French) “President Yanukovych has been made illegitimate. It’s very worrying especially because Russia lost in hockey, they’ll be in a bad mood. We fear Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine.” In the article about the incident on the CBC website, there are more details outlining the fact that when challenged that there had been a massacre, he agreed it was not something to make light of. The February 24th article also mentioned that some Conservative MPs and cabinet ministers used Twitter to criticize Trudeau’s remarks. You believe that the omission of NDP criticism of the comment is deliberate and biased against the Conservatives. You point to other news media’s mention as proof of this. You wanted an explanation for why the “CBC attack only the Conservatives.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Director of Digital Media for CBC News, Brodie Fenlon, responded to your complaint. He said he was “puzzled” that you saw these two articles as an attack on the Conservatives. He pointed out that the story prominently featured Conservatives “because they played a central role in it.” The Defense Minister, a member of the Conservative government, issued a response to the revelation that Andrew Leslie had filed a $72,000 moving expense. He explained that the NDP were not really involved in the story but on February 18 posted a press release on its web site comparing the cost of Leslie’s move to other government expenses and payments.

He did not think the second article was an attack either. He pointed out two cabinet ministers tweeted criticism of Mr. Trudeau’s comments. And the citizenship minister addressed the issue outside the House of Commons. He added it was the Conservatives who led the criticism of Trudeau’s remarks:

The Liberal leader’s remarks were controversial and to some, including three federal cabinet ministers, inappropriate. The CBCNews.ca story drew attention to the incident, published the Liberal Leader’s remarks and then the Conservative cabinet ministers’ sharply critical reaction. The story could be seen as putting Mr. Trudeau in a negative light. It does not in any reasonable reading “attack” the Conservatives.

REVIEW

I too am puzzled by your assertions. You have a particular view of CBC journalism, and so it is easy to look at any omission as a deliberate bias. In this case it is hard to see how it is. You may not agree, but the editorial judgment is sound. In fact, one could make the argument that it is the NDP being discriminated against – since their position is not given. Let me be clear that I am not making that argument, but it is as logical an inference as yours is.

The Defense Minister reacted to the story about one of his retiring officers filing a large moving expense claim. Andrew Leslie was leaving the military and had become an advisor to Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau. The issue was public and politicized. The Liberals and Conservatives were the principal players in the event. The story on line lays out the events to date. It allows those reading it to make up their own minds about the expense claim and the policy that allowed it, as well as the appropriateness of the responses from Nicholson, Trudeau and Leslie himself. This story developed through a weekend. Early in the following week, Power and Politics examined the issue with MPs from the three main parties.

It is even more puzzling to consider the second article you cite as an attack on the Conservatives. The Liberal leader was the subject of some controversy from his remarks. Some prominent Conservatives expressed what presumably others were also thinking, that the joke was inappropriate. I can’t think why it is biased or wrong to report that fact. There are no grounds for your complaint.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman