Coming to Conclusions: It's a grey zone but analysis backed by facts is part of what news does

The complainant, Michael Cheung, thought a column about the growing struggle in Hong Kong was biased. He thought it left out many important facts about the Chinese government position. The analysis published before the large demonstrations this summer provided insight and explanation about what was going on.

COMPLAINT

You wrote to complain that an analysis piece on the situation in Hong Kong violated CBC News’s journalistic policies of balance and impartiality. The column was written by Patrick Brown, now a freelance journalist and documentary maker, but for many years a CBC correspondent in Asia. It was published on August 29, 2014, in anticipation of a Chinese government announcement about the rules for Hong Kong’s 2017 election. This was the beginning of the ongoing protests.

Mr. Brown focused on the raid of businessman Jimmy Lai’s home, pointing out the timing of the raid in the context of growing tension between the government and the pro-democracy protesters. Mr. Lai is a prominent media owner and vocal supporter of the pro-democracy movement. The raid was carried out by the Independent Commission Against Corruption, a Hong Kong government agency. You said Mr. Brown distorted the truth and created a false impression about the state of democracy in Hong Kong:

He had failed to present all the facts on this issue. He applied partial facts, speculations and conjectures to propagate his prejudiced view that China is stomping on Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Not only that he misinformed CBC’s readers on this issue, he also smeared the reputation of Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). His worst offense was to monger fear of Hong Kong becoming a police state.

You provided detailed information to back up your view that Mr. Brown was “smearing the reputation of the ICAC.” You talked about its excellent reputation and track record in fighting corruption. You pointed out that Mr. Brown did not mention that the ICAC was investigating Mr. Lai based on a citizen’s complaint. You wrote:

ICAC has a shining reputation in the hearts and minds of all law-abiding Hong Kong residents. In its 40 years of sterling history, it has investigated and prosecuted many high-ranking government officials and powerful business executives. Its recent investigation has led to the current trial of the former Chief Secretary to the Executive Council. It also recently investigated the Immediate Past Chief Executive of Hong Kong and even its own former ICAC Commissioner. ICAC is truly independent of anyone’s influence.

You questioned Mr. Brown’s stating there were reports circulating that the Chinese government was about to announce the rules for Hong Kong’s election for a leader in 2017, and that the rules would require that all candidates would have to be approved by Beijing. You said you had heard no such thing, and that Beijing is committed to a “long term plan to steadily enhance democracy in Hong Kong” and to gradually approve the nominating process for Chief Executive. You also pointed out that China is “advocating one resident, one vote” for the upcoming election, which would be a first.

You also disputed the characterization of a July 1 pro-democracy rally as a “huge march,” contrasted with an August pro-government rally as having “a much smaller turnout.” You quoted a University of Hong Kong estimate that put both events in the same range.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The managing editor of CBCNews.ca, Brodie Fenlon, supplied an equally detailed answer to the points you raised. He noted that Patrick Brown was a senior and respected journalist who had many years’ experience working in China. He told you:

We give him the freedom to advance interpretations of events that may not be to everyone’s liking, but are clearly based on the facts at hand. CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices allows senior journalists to make judgment calls. In other words, they are free to reach conclusions, to develop a point of view, if you will, based on facts, on the evidence they collect.

It is CBC’s mandate to carry different points of view on controversial matters of public interest and concern like this one. When our journalists or others offer their views, we clearly identify them to our readers. We precede such articles with the word “Analysis”.

He addressed your concerns about the characterization of the ICAC, and its investigation into Jimmy Lai. He acknowledged the detail about the reason for the investigation but noted that the analysis dealt with the timing of the raid, not its substance. He agreed that the ICAC has a strong reputation but pointed out that it was for this very reason “that even the appearance that the ICAC is being used for political purpose is damaging to an institution which has been crucial for the development of Hong Kong as an international financial institution.”

Mr. Fenlon noted that Mr. Brown’s column was not dealing with issues of suffrage, but with the provision that has upset the pro-democracy campaigners. “And that is the restriction on who may run as a candidate.”

In response to your complaint about Mr. Brown’s characterization of the pro-government and pro-democracy rallies and their relative size, he told you:

You point out that precise figures of the size of the crowd are not available, and that reports vary between 120,000 and 190,000. Mr. Brown did not include figures in his article for the very reason that there are conflicting accounts of the precise headcount. As such, I support his decision to simply describe the first march as “huge,” and the second - which by all accounts had tens of thousands of fewer participants - as “a much smaller turnout.”

REVIEW

You were particularly concerned that Mr. Brown had impugned the reputation of the Independent Commission Against Corruption. In fact, Mr. Brown devotes paragraphs to explain what good work it has done.

The creation of Hong Kong's most feared and respected law enforcement body in 1974 was a key factor of the transformation of a small British colony off the coast of China into a global commercial and financial powerhouse.

After cleaning up a police force known as the finest money could buy, the ICAC has used its extraordinary powers to tackle corruption, in the process allowing honest government and the rule of law to take root.

He also lays out facts that could certainly lead one to wonder about the timing of the raid of Mr. Lai’s home. A phony obit had recently been published in a pro-government paper. Mr. Lai is a prominent supporter of the pro-democracy movement. Mr. Brown doesn’t mention it, but other news reports at the time said that there had been a leak of documents revealing Mr. Lai’s support for pro-democracy figures. And finally the report from the National People’s Congress was imminent.

He also provides other information that there had been an “erosion of the rule of law” in Hong Kong. You dismissed that information as well. It came from a rights group, Human Rights Watch, and is an acceptable source for a reporter to use. Mr. Brown refers to the timing creating “suspicion” about the ICAC, which is a valid inference:

So even the suspicion that the ICAC is being used for the persecution of political enemies is a grave blow to Hong Kong’s unique blend of business genius and probity.

You questioned Mr. Brown’s statement that the Beijing government will only allow candidates approved by the regime to run for Chief Executive. That, of course, turned out to be true. The column Mr. Brown was writing was setting the stage and explaining the issues and the growing tension in Hong Kong. Having read it, readers would have some understanding of what came next.

You also raised the thorny issue of crowd size. It is always a difficult one for journalists – especially since there are always such wildly disparate claims by supporters. There is no way I can actually adjudicate the point. Reports I read that gave numbers at all gave ranges, and those ranges overlapped. It is a good reminder that it is important to provide context and some attribution when it comes to estimating crowds. I would note that Mr. Brown is an experienced reporter.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices does give journalists the room to analyze facts and draw conclusions from those facts. The policy states that journalists “provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise.” Mr. Brown has done so in this piece. He provided context and the facts he used were accurate. It may not be a conclusion you agree with, but that does not make it wrong or in violation of CBC policy.

CBCNews.ca has devoted a lot of space to events that unfolded since Mr. Brown’s column was published on August 29. The position of the Beijing government and the Chief Executive of Hong Kong has been accurately reported, along with the views of those who are in opposition to them. This fulfills the need for balance and fairness.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman