Kick it Around but choose your words carefully

The complainant, Sharon Dixon, objected to a reference to Tom Mulcair in an introduction to a discussion about him on Power and Politics. She thought it showed unacceptable disrespect from a CBC journalist. Rosemary Barton played on the term “kick it around” which can mean toss around ideas or, of course, to abuse the opposition leader in some way. The aside was meant humorously and could easily be understood in that fashion. But it is a reminder that even when ad libbing, one should choose words carefully.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about the way substitute host Rosemary Barton introduced a discussion about Opposition leader Tom Mulcair as part of a Power Panel segment on the May 16, 2004 edition of Power & Politics. You thought it completely inappropriate that she said “Let’s kick around Tom Mulcair.” You stated that this was “unprofessional no matter what your politics” and that “the public broadcaster owes more dignity to the opposition leader than that.” In a later email, you stated that you were not concerned about the panelists and the ensuing discussion, but that your complaint was very specifically about Ms. Barton’s language.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The executive producer of Power & Politics, Amy Castle, responded to your concerns. She explained the remark was in an unscripted moment, as the host was transitioning from a previous topic with the Power Panel to a commercial. She acknowledged that this was likely not the best choice of words but that there was never any intent to, as you put it, “kick around Tom Mulcair.” She pointed out that the ensuing discussion among the panel members treated Mr. Mulcair respectfully. She added that the program is committed to treating “all parties and all perspectives with respect.”

REVIEW

On the May 16th edition of Power & Politics, its “Power Panel” took on a variety of issues. The last one concerned the appearance of NDP Opposition leader Tom Mulcair before the Procedure and House Committee. He was called to account for the fact that the NDP had set up satellite offices outside of Ottawa. There were allegations that the NDP had used House of Commons funds for political activities. Mr. Mulcair went before the committee to answer questions, and to put the argument that there was nothing inappropriate about the payment and staffing of these offices. The Power Panel had examined many other issues, and were coming back for one more round to address Canadian policy vis a vis sanctions against Russia and to assess the effectiveness of Mr. Mulcair’s committee appearance the day before. It was not set up to examine the substance of the controversy, but rather to rate the performance of Mr. Mulcair. As the program was about to go to commercial, Ms. Barton said this:

“We gotta take a quick break. That was very smart, so smart we are going to come back to them one more time with more Power Panel. Is Canada being selective about its sanctions against Russia? And we might even do one go around, end of the week, sort of Tom Mulcair kick around. We won’t kick him around, well maybe we will. Weston, O’Malley, Patriquin and Cryderman after this.”

CBC Journalistic Policy on Language generally calls for concise, simple, clear and concrete writing. The words chosen should be clear and adequate to convey the facts. Its policy defines fairness as treating “individuals and organizations with openness and respect. We are mindful of their rights.”

Listening to the introduction in the context of the broadcast, I get the impression that Ms. Barton’s initial reference to a “kick around” was actually shorthand for meaning we will “kick around” some ideas about Mr. Mulcair, but she added, in a joking manner, the reference to another way the phrase “kick around” could be taken. I agree with Ms. Castle that it was not the best choice of words. It was an attempt at humour, which you think failed. Humour is highly subjective and I too agree it was not the best turn of phrase. It was a parenthetical reference, and did not actually call on the panel to “kick around Mr. Mulcair.” And while it was not the best way to introduce the panel, there is no evidence that there was any intent to disrespect or to treat Mr. Mulcair unfairly.

While you were clear that you had no issue with what the panelists had to say, it is important to see the remark in the wider context of the discussion, which did bring a range of perspectives to the table. If this remark had been in the middle of a reporter’s scripted and packaged item, for example, there might be more cause for concern. If there was a persistent pattern of mocking or diminishing a particular leader, that too would be a problem. Your complaint is a reminder that precision in language is always important and even when attempting humour, respect and fairness are critical.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman