Common sense and conflict of interest

The complainant, Donald Gislason, was concerned that Bruce Anderson’s continued participation in The National’s At Issue panel was compromising what he considers an excellent feature. Mr. Anderson’s daughter works for Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, a fact Anderson voluntarily made public on an edition of At Issue earlier this year. The complainant believes it’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” because he believes Mr. Anderson is obliged to mention the association every time he is on air, but in doing so it just reinforces the conflict. I disagreed. The reasons are in my review.

COMPLAINT

You contacted The National, then this office, because you believe that Bruce Anderson is in a conflict of interest appearing on the program’s At Issue panel because his daughter works for Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau. You think that because the panel regularly discusses federal politics Mr. Anderson is in a conflict of interest, and that viewers will wonder if he is holding back or modifying his position so as to not compromise his daughter:

The suspicion that Mr. Anderson is choosing his words carefully, with his own daughter's career in mind, is especially easy to entertain as he is by far the most mild-mannered commentator on the panel. The discomfort that viewers will feel in listening to him would not, then, be restricted to what he actually says, but also to what he doesn't say, and the possible motivations for why he didn't say it.

You also assert that “Family relatives often work in similar fields of work, but most viewers will feel that the father-daughter relationship is especially strong, and quite distinct in nature from that between an individual and his in-laws, his siblings, or even his parents -- from whom the individual will naturally grow independent as he or she grows older. The child-parent relationship is different. A father never grows ‘independent’ of his progeny, never stops hoping for the best for them, never stops rooting for them in the hurly-burly of life. Ever.”

Therefore you believe it is untenable for Mr. Anderson to continue on the panel, even if he prefaced each appearance with the declaration of his daughter’s employment. You feel that if it was mentioned in every broadcast, then the audience would believe that CBC News was “distancing itself from his (Anderson’s) commentary.” But if it is not mentioned in every episode, it “gives the opposite impression: that it is of little importance.” You believe that even though he is not a staff member, he should be treated as any CBC reporter would be:

But no reasonable viewer would expect that the members of the At Issue panel are to be held to a lesser standard than those governing the conduct of the CBC's national reporters. And surely if Terry Milewski, Chris Hall, Rosemary Barton or Evan Solomon had a daughter working for Justin Trudeau, they would not be the face of CBC news reporting on national issues every day.

You quote from the CBC corporate policy on Ethics and Conflict of Interest to further make the point that the status quo is untenable. You point out that it states:

No conflict should exist or appear to exist between the private interests of CBC/Radio-Canada employees and their official duties.

And under “Disclosure” it says:

If an employee, acting reasonably and in good faith, concludes at any time that there is a conflict of interest or that there are reasonable grounds for a perception of conflict of interest, then the employee has a duty to disclose the matter in writing to their immediate supervisor and to remove the conflict.

In light of these policies you only see one remedy: Mr. Anderson’s removal from the At Issue panel.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The National, Mark Harrison, responded to your concerns. He said that he appreciated your support for the At Issue panel, and was interested to read what your views were, but he did not agree with your conclusions.

He explained that Mr. Anderson himself raised the issues of his daughter’s employment “in the interests of transparency.” He quoted what Peter Mansbridge said on that January 26, 2014 broadcast:

Bruce, before I get your comment, I should say you had asked me to actually say, to point out to people, I think most certainly people around Ottawa know the Anderson family is well known for being very involved in politics on a lot of levels. At different times, different members of the family have worked for the Liberals, the senators, the Reform Party, and your daughter is now working for Justin Trudeau. So, putting that out there in context, your thoughts on what Justin Trudeau did?

He added that the biographical note on the National’s web site includes this information as well. He felt this was adequate disclosure rather than repeating it every time the panel is on air because a large segment of the audience are “loyal viewers” who are regular watchers of The National. He added that he did appreciate your point, and while the program would not remind viewers of Mr. Anderson’s daughter’s job in Justin Trudeau’s office, “we will certainly remind viewers as we feel appropriate.” He explained that the Liberals and its leader often are mentioned in episodes of At Issue, but by no means in every one. He added that to mention it in every edition might have a negative effect:

Of course, the Liberals are the country’s third party. While the leader has attracted a certain amount of attention these days, there are editions of At Issue when the Liberals have not been mentioned in any significant fashion. Alternatively, there may be occasions when they are the subject of some comment, but not from Mr. Anderson. In either case, reminding viewers about Mr. Anderson’s daughter seems rather unnecessary. Indeed, continually drawing viewers’ attention to his daughter’s employer could have the opposite effect to that intended: Implying that we doubt his integrity, which of course is not the case.

He also reassured you of the integrity and insight Mr. Anderson brings to the panel:

Mr. Anderson is a man widely noted for his integrity. Aside from being a sage political commentator, he has enjoyed a remarkable career often working for both the Conservative and Liberal parties. He started 35 years ago on Parliament Hill in a Liberal cabinet minister’s office, before leaving to join Decima Research, in 1983. Five years later he started his own research and communications business as a founding partner of the storied Earnscliffe Strategy Group. In 2004, he returned to Decima as President and CEO during a time it was twice named one of Canada's 50 Best Managed Companies. His career is based on his reputation for unbiased, knowledgeable and insightful analysis, exactly the reason we value his contribution to the panel.

REVIEW

You feel because of the wording of the CBC policy, and because this a strong and obvious conflict of interest, there is no remedy but to drop Mr. Anderson from the At Issue panel. I would suggest that this is a more complex situation, and as someone said to be me recently, although in a different context, complex issues are not resolved by simple solutions.

It is reasonable to question the impact of Mr. Anderson’s daughter’s employment on a perception of conflict. You build a case for a strong conflict of interest on a number of assumptions. I do not agree with some of them.

I am not sure what evidence there is to say that anything Mr. Anderson had to say about Justin Trudeau would impact Ms. Anderson’s career, let alone believe that this would be top of mind for her father when he speaks. I also do not agree, as you state, that a father-daughter relationship is so strong, a father can do nothing but be loyal to his child. As a parent myself, I understand the impulse – but adult children are autonomous, and within families there is often disagreement on politics.

I think you are making an assumption that simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. That is part of the reason Mr. Harrison pointed out to you that the Anderson family is associated with a wide political spectrum. Having family members working for different parties would be the norm in that context. There is no evidence that Mr. Anderson feels conflicted about it. His request that CBC announce his daughter’s employment was out of concern of a perception of conflict of interest.

Mr. Harrison is correct to remind you of Mr. Anderson’s track record. He is not partisan – his role on the panel is to analyze trends and put the performance of various political leaders into a broader context. It seems rather unfair to take the fact that you think him the most measured of the panelists and turn this against him by then saying that means he must be holding back to protect his daughter. It is unfair to Mr. Anderson, and is based on a set of assumptions that I do not share. I respect the fact that it sets up doubts in your mind.

I have reviewed the transcripts of Mr. Anderson’s participation in panels since the January 30 disclosure. There are instances where he says positive things about Mr. Trudeau, as he did on January 30 in relation to Trudeau’s move to force Liberal senators out of the caucus. There are other times when he is more critical. On the February 7 edition of At Issue, in a response to a question about Trudeau’s performance delivering a speech to a party convention he replies:

Well, Peter, my take is that he is not or at least not yet a powerful orator from the standpoint of a TV audience, although the audiences that he meets with, including I guess the folks in the room tonight, seem to like the way that he performs his speech well enough. I was really struck by a few things. I thought it was quite, I thought it was low energy, I thought it was a bit understated, and it's easy sometimes to look at that and say, that's flat.

In another edition of the panel, on March 27 he was critical of Trudeau’s handling of a riding nomination dispute. He has also made positive statements about Prime Minister Harper.

You believe that Mr. Anderson should be held to the same standard as CBC reporters. I disagree. Mr. Anderson is not an employee of CBC, he is hired as a commentator. I do agree that if a reporter was covering the Liberal Party and relied on contact with the leader’s office on a daily basis, there would be a serious issue. That is not the case here. Furthermore, CBC Journalistic policy is clear about the role of commentators:

CBC, in its programming, over time, provides a wide range of comment and opinion on significant issues.

We achieve balance by featuring multiple perspectives and points of view to reflect a diversity of opinion.

It is important to mention any association, affiliation or special interest a guest or commentator may have so that the public can fully understand that person's perspective.

The program has disclosed the association – on air and on the website. The executive producer has indicated to me that when the Liberal Party leader is the main focus of discussion, they will repeat the connection, and will judge if there are times when it would be preferable to recuse Mr. Anderson.

You are uncomfortable about this being a judgement call, but the reality of journalism is that it is largely based on just that, within the parameters of values and principles. Undoubtedly there is the possibility of a perception of conflict of interest here. But Mr. Anderson is not an employee of the corporation, so the Conflict of Interest guideline you cite would not apply precisely.

More fundamentally, the judgement comes in how much, in reality, his daughter’s position undermines his credibility and ability to contribute to the program. I would say that it is pretty minor in this context. Mr. Anderson is part of the At Issue panel because of a track record of expertise on public policy and politics. While it is important to acknowledge where his daughter works, it is an over-reaction to then say he is irredeemably compromised.

One of the ways to mitigate a potential conflict is to declare it. The journalistic policy on commentators and on interviewees states that the audience should know important affiliations held by a program participant so the audience will be able to put a speaker’s remarks in context. CBC News and Mr. Anderson have done so. So long as the program does commit to mentioning the relationship when the Liberal leader is the main focus of discussion, there is nothing wrong with Mr. Anderson’s participation in the At Issue panel.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman