Can an analyst with a partisan past provide balance?

Summary

The complainant, James O’Hagan, was concerned that the use of a single designated political analyst who was recently a member of the NDP government in Nova Scotia violated CBC journalistic policy on balance. The content of his analysis was no-partisan, fair and balanced. CBC News in Nova Scotia provides other perspectives on major political and public policy issues, so there is no violation of policy. I did suggest though that other voices might be added because the analyst in question, Graham Steele has a lot of exposure on three platforms.

COMPLAINT

CBC News in Nova Scotia has engaged a former provincial cabinet minister, Graham Steele, as a political analyst. He appears weekly on the supper hour news program, as well as on Information Morning and his columns are aggregated on a web page. The content of his various contributions for these platforms sometimes cover the same topic, but not consistently. On the web page Mr. Steele is described in this way:

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as Minister of Finance. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News. The content of his various contributions sometimes cover the same topic, but not consistently.

Mr. Steele served in the NDP cabinet of Premier Darrell Dexter until the government was defeated in an election in October 2013. The Liberal Party won the election, the Progressive Conservatives are the official opposition and the NDP is now in third place.

This background is relevant because the essence of your complaint is that there is only one designated political analyst on CBC News in Nova Scotia and he “is identified by the audience as a politically affiliated figure of a recently defeated government.” You asked “whether or not CBC is seen to deliver the substance and appearance of balance in JSP (Journalistic Standards and Practices) by naming only one person regionally with the title of CBC news analyst or CBC political analyst.” You thought that two more analysts with affiliation to the two other major political parties in the province should be appointed to achieve balance. The specific example you cited that created a perception of lack of balance was a discussion on Information Morning about changes in economic development policy.

“Your analyst who first occasioned my comments to you was explaining Economic Development Policy which is highly unlikely to be uncoupled from party ideology in its objectives, priorities, funding levels and mode of delivery. Indeed, if CBC is endeavoring to provide listeners with non- partisan insight into the inner workings of the executive branch of past and current governments, in this area or any other, I would have thought the region boosts (sic) learned political science and economic development and other experts who can comment more objectively and in a balanced way to suit JSP.”

You were also interested in the rationale for designating someone a “political analyst” and what the process was that led to Mr. Steele’s engagement in the position. You wondered if there were specific criteria for the naming of such an analyst, and what they might be. You also pointed out that there seemed to be some confusion internally as Mr. Steele was identified slightly differently in different contexts.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Kathy Large, the Program Manager for CBC Radio in Nova Scotia, replied to your concerns. She explained that while Mr. Steele is the only person formally labelled political analyst on a regular basis, there are many other people interviewed on various programs about a wide variety of issues, and from a broad range of perspectives. She provided you with examples:

“Just in the last week at Information Morning in Halifax we have spoken with a senior bureaucrat (head of the Tourism agency), a national president of an advocacy group (president of the C.F.I.B.) who was in town to meet with the premier, a local representative of an advocacy group (Clean Pictou Air), two journalists/commentators (Ralph Surette and Parker Donham), and an industry representative (Stewart Lamont of Tangier Lobster) on a range of public policy topics. Tomorrow, we will be speaking with Premier Stephen McNeil on various current topics. Our shows are all in touch with a variety of commentators, some of whom we pay and others we invite to take part in discussions on behalf of the organizations they represent.”

She explained that the designation of CBC News analyst is used to make a distinction “between that person and our CBC journalists.” She pointed out that every time Mr. Steele is introduced on radio or television, his political affiliation and government role are also mentioned. She explained why CBC News management engaged Mr. Steele:

“His distinctive value as an analyst (compared to other commentators) derives from his insider experience as a former minister and long-time MLA. We select topics to discuss with him that are currently in the news that he may be able to illuminate as a result of his legislative and governmental experience. We see him as someone to provide opinion and observation while being one step removed from political decision-making. Mr. Steele himself tells us he is no longer active in party affairs. We expect reasoned analysis from a commentator such as Mr. Steele. We do not expect objectivity.”

In a conversation I had with Andrew Cochran, the former Senior Managing Director for Atlantic Canada, he confirmed to me that Mr. Steele was hired because he provided “a sense of history, insight in the (political) process”, and he provided it in an even handed way. He explained there is precedent for having an ex-politician in this role, and in the past a former Conservative politician fulfilled the role after she left office. He also told me that he and Mr. Steele talked about the issues raised in Journalistic Standards and Practices. Mr. Cochran said both of them agreed that the goal was to provide insight about politics and public policy and that Mr. Steele was not to use his CBC appearances to defend past positions or to advocate for his party. Mr. Cochran also told me that there is no intention for Mr. Steele to be the sole political commentator on CBC News in Nova Scotia. He pointed out that Information Morning has another political panel, representing a range of views, every Friday morning.

Mr. Cochran responded to your concern about the lack of consistency in describing Mr. Steeles when he is on air or writing for online. Mr. Cochran said that Mr. Steele should be described as “a” political commentator, not “the” political commentator for CBC News in Nova Scotia. He explained that he sees a difference in the use of the indefinite article “a” and the definite article “the.” The point is that he thinks that other voices and commentators participate in political discussions He said that it is not an exclusive role.

REVIEW

There are several policies that are relevant here: The first one addresses the issue you raise: Journalistic Standards and Practices notes that Balance requires that CBC news and current affairs content “contribute to informed debate” on matters of importance to Canadians, and does so by presenting a wide a range of views and perspectives. The policy on

Impartiality states:

We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.

The third policy to consider in this case is the one that requires that there is disclosure of relevant information about the person interviewed so that the audience can “judge the relevance and credibility of their statements.” In this case, knowing that Graham Steele is a former member of the NDP provincial government is an important disclosure so anyone listening to him or reading his columns so that they have a context for his remarks and judge them accordingly. I note that on Information Morning his past affiliation is mentioned before and after the interview. It is mentioned on TV and prominently mentioned on his web page. This transparency is important and in keeping with CBC News policy.

I listened to and watched all Mr. Steele’s appearances on CBC News in Nova Scotia for the month of July. While you are concerned, with good reason, about the role he plays as an analyst, it is equally important to assess the content and to ensure that on important matters, a range of views are presented to members of the public so they can assess the information and come to their own conclusions. There is no doubt that Mr. Steele is qualified to “provide professional judgment based on facts and experience.” I agree it would be a serious conflict if he used his access to the airwaves and website to advocate for his party’s position, or to defend his government’s record. Mr. Cochran said they have an explicit understanding that he is not to do so. This is borne out in listening to the material. The discussions are framed in a non-partisan way. For the most part, the interviewers are trying to get behind an issue and use Mr. Steele’s expertise to provide some insight to the political process and thinking. In one of the episodes I reviewed, he talked about the politics of the disclosure of public services salaries. Mr. Steele provided the historical context, and in this case was fairly frank about his government’s thinking around the value of doing so, and the attempt to broaden the groups of people covered by the legislation.

The range of topics went from the virtual shut down of the business of government during the summer, to the value of public meetings for consultation to the change in economic development policy, the topic you cited. There were times when Mr. Graham was complimentary to the sitting government. For example, when asked about the public consultation process about hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, he said:

“A lot of people inside government are afraid of public consultations. They have this image in their head of people standing at a microphone pointing their finger and yelling at them. But there are different ways of doing consultation and it seems to me that this process is being set up the right way.”

When discussing public anger about the performance of Nova Scotia Power in the aftermath of hurricane Arthur, he explained that the anger directed toward the government is misplaced, as it is a private company. When he is asked about the political hay opposition parties make over public outrage, he replies:

“I will say this – every party that is in opposition, that includes us, that includes Stephen McNeil when he was on the opposition side is very happy to take people’s dismay and anger …and direct it toward the government….”

You were concerned that Mr. Steele was the only analyst to talk about changes in economic development policy. He provided analysis which explained what the changes were, situated its impact and speculated what the motives behind it might have been, but never said whether it is a good or bad thing. The day before and in the run up to the announcement, various programs presented the views of the relevant government minister and a businessman. Balance and fairness can and should be judged by the content and the range of views presented, regardless of the title of one particular guest.

Mr. Steele’s analysis is non-partisan, his affiliations are open and transparent, and CBC News does provide other views and perspectives on politics and public policy. There is no violation of policy.

There was one instance when a TV episode of his weekly chat came close to the line Mr. Cochran had set. And that is when Mr. Steele was asked to comment on the release of the Public Accounts for the province for 2013-14. There was a significant deficit and a large debt. His government would have contributed to that situation. In fairness to Mr. Graham, he did not try to “spin” the facts or avoid responsibility, but it is a cautionary tale that a conflict of interest is possible and there are some subjects best left to other commentators.

While Mr. Steele seems to effectively lift the curtain on the political process and to do so without any clear or obvious point of view, the fact remains he was a member of an NDP government less than a year ago. He has a considerable presence on CBC News, with featured material on three platforms. CBC News management might want to consider providing others with different perspectives that are able to address underlying issues in public policy in similar fashion.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman