Quote Context: A famous aphorism only works if it's used the way it's meant

The complainant, Don Bourgeois, objected to a reporter’s use of the famous Trudeau quote about the state having no place in the nation’s bedrooms in the context of a story about charges against the leaders of the polygamist sect in Bountiful, B.C. He thought it could be taken to mean that Trudeau would condone sex with children. The way the story is written leaves it somewhat ambiguous. This is really a reminder about the importance of sharp writing.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about a story broadcast on the 7:00 a.m. edition of World Report on October 9, 2014, concerning a court case against the leaders of the polygamist community of Bountiful, British Columbia. The reporter invoked the famous phrase of Pierre Elliot Trudeau about the state having no place in the bedrooms of the nation. You asked what the journalistic purpose of using the reference might be in the context of a story about polygamy and the trafficking of underage girls. You explained your concerns:

The report left the impression, with me at least, that Trudeau's comment included sex with children. For those who are not familiar with the context, Mr. Trudeau was speaking on a much different matter - same sex relations or other sex relations between adults in private.

MANAGEMENT REPLY

Paul Hambleton, the Managing Editor of CBC Radio and Television News, responded to your concern. He replied that the Trudeau quote is often used in the context of discussions about “the enforcement of the law applied to a citizen’s private life.” He added that in this case the story was emphasizing the question of whether the British Columbian government had the right to prosecute the leaders of the polygamist sect in Bountiful for their “lifestyle.” He explained it was kind of shorthand in a brief radio news item so that listeners would understand the issues involved. He noted that the second reference was a “stylistic device closing the piece by referring once again to that famous quote.” He added that it might have been more useful to use a more up to date reference:

That said, I'll concede that the quote in such a short piece might have been a trifle laboured, and may have distracted the listener from the issues at play in the story, being asked to recall suddenly an event that happen so long ago.

I hope this helps to explain the reference and that while it was grounded in political history for effect, perhaps a more up to date reference even to the BC Supreme Court ruling might have worked better.

REVIEW

The World Report story dealt with two separate charges faced by the leaders of Bountiful. The conflating of the two in reference to the Trudeau quote is what you found inappropriate. They face charges of polygamy, and others also face charges for trafficking young girls across the Canada – U.S. border.

As you point out, the Trudeau reference may be apt when it comes to polygamy, but it is not correct to use it with reference to activity involving minors. World Report host David Common began this way:

A court appearance today will put the issue of polygamy back in the spotlight. Two leaders from a fundamentalist Mormon sect in southern British Columbia are accused of having multiple wives. A few others from the sect are charged with taking under-age girls across the U.S. border to marry older men. Bob Keating explains:

The reporter then picks up the narrative, beginning with the Trudeau reference:

Former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau once famously said there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation. But that’s exactly where B.C. is headed - into the bedrooms of a breakaway Mormon sect of fundamentalists in the mountainous B.C. community known as Bountiful. The province hopes to pull back the covers in Bountiful, fully expecting to find men with many many wives – 24 it is alleged in the case of Bountiful leader Winston Blackmore.

Blackmore and former leader James Oler are charged with polygamy. Oler and two others face the additional charge of unlawfully removing a child from Canada, the actual act of shuffling girls as young as 12 across the Canada-U.S. border to marry much older men. Those charges have a direct connection to U.S. polygamist leader Warren Jeffs who was sentenced to life in prison for his role in similar crimes.

This is not the first time B.C. has tried to put Bountiful’s leaders behind bars. For 20 years, attorneys general here have attempted to get to the bottom of what goes on in this secretive community, never quite succeeding to get into those bedrooms that Trudeau vowed so long ago to keep out of.

CBC News Journalistic Standards and Practices demands that “the production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.” That would include the writing and presentation. In this case, I understand why you might be concerned about the Trudeau reference in this context. While it was valid to use the reference, the way it was framed in the piece could have been clearer. I think most people familiar with the context in which former Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the statement would understand what the reporter meant. Compressing the issue of polygamy along with the charges of trafficking children muddies the reference to the Trudeau quote. It would have been better to have been more precise.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman