Style vs Substance

The complainant, Richard McKean, thought an exchange between Kevin O’Leary and Amanda Lang on the Lang O’Leary Exchange violated CBC policy. They were arguing about which province had the lowest rate of taxation in Canada. Not only did they not resolve the question, Mr. O’Leary responded that Amanda was telling him a lie. Mr. McKean thought the exchange undermined CBC credibility and that it was not appropriate for one CBC host to accuse the other of lying. Mr. O’Leary’s remark was a bit of hyperbole in the context of a heated exchange that is one of the hallmarks of the program. As for the specific issue, it turns out, like many things, there is no absolute truth. Assessing tax jurisdictions is a complicated question. Journalistic policy requires that the issues be laid out. It does not require resolution. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

The Lang & O’Leary Exchange, a business show that runs nightly on CBC News Network, begins each broadcast with a feature called the Big 5. This comprises five brief headline-type stories the program hosts and producers deem interesting. It is followed by a discussion about each one in turn. The discussions are generally lively and fast paced. They are not full discussions of the story or issue raised but rather an opportunity for each host to give an opinion, analysis or further information on each headline. It is freewheeling and unscripted.

On the December 16, 2013 broadcast, there was mention of a finance ministers meeting to discuss the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and ways to change and augment it. The discussion moved on to a heated exchange between Lang and O’Leary about taxation in general and provincial corporate tax rates in particular. In the course of the discussion, Ms. Lang stated that Ontario was the jurisdiction with the lowest tax rate in North America. Mr. O’Leary disagreed, saying Amanda had lied to him.

This prompted your complaint: “This is unacceptable. Both cannot be right. Either Ms Lang has lied or she has been falsely accused by her colleague.” You felt that:

The level of corporate tax rates in a given jurisdiction is a fact. Whether or not these rates should be changed is an opinion. This complaint is not about the opinions of the hosts but rather their representation of a fact.

These statements, the claim on relative tax rates by Ms Lang and the accusation by Mr. O'Leary, cannot both be true. If there is no further clarification, we don't know who is right.”

You thought that the exchange itself in the heat of the moment was not a problem, but that the credibility of CBC News is affected by not providing a resolution about who got the facts right.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Robert Lack, the Executive Producer of The Lang & O’Leary Exchange responded to your concerns. He explained that the dialogue between the two hosts was meant to be an entertaining take on news of the day:

“After receiving your e-mail I went back and re-watched the segment. In my view it is typical of the playful verbal jousting that Ms. Lang and Mr. O'Leary have developed in their more than eight years of working together on television.

Ms. Lang and Mr. O’Leary discuss many controversial topics on the program, and often end up with significant disagreements. Mr. O'Leary, in his role as business commentator on the program, holds strong and often provocative opinions and often uses colourful language to express them. It is something we encourage and something viewers regularly tell us they find informative and entertaining.”

REVIEW

It is a reasonable expectation that CBC News, in its presentation of news, provides accurate and balanced information. The Journalistic Standards and Practices commits CBC information programming to “serve the public interest: through a mission to inform, to reveal, to contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest and to encourage citizens to participate in our free and democratic society...”

There is also a commitment to accuracy, balance and fairness. The question in this case is whether this means that every moment of every broadcast meets that commitment. Context and audience expectations also matter. As Mr. Lack pointed out, Lang and O’Leary engage in this kind of repartee frequently. One of the conceits of the program is the point-counterpoint nature of the relationship between them. Mr. O’Leary is known for his hyperbole and his provocative stands on a variety of subjects. The Big 5 segment is designed to feature the nature of the relationship, while presumably bringing some insight into the stories highlighted.

In this case, the story was actually about a federal-provincial finance ministers meeting, convened to discuss an expansion of the Canada Pension Plan. Ms. Lang begins the discussion by saying:

“There was some hope that there would be some agreement on the expansion of the CPP. Several provinces, certainly Ontario and PEI, think there needs to be an expansion of the program. And what Jim Flaherty said was he is not against doing it, but not now...If employees up the contribution, employers have to pay more and it acts as a payroll tax. He said it was the wrong time to do that.”

Mr. O’Leary then says he does agree that it is a payroll tax, but “with one exception, that it is a forced saving element for people doing what they should be doing.” He then goes on to talk about the need for people to save throughout their working lives.

At this point the discussion is directly related to the issue at hand – the position of some provinces that there should be a greater government pension plan for people who are not able to provide for themselves in any other way, and the downside of increasing the program because it will cost businesses more.

There is some more discussion about the impact of payroll tax and how to offset the impact, when Mr. O’Leary interjects: “There are some, and I count myself among them, who believe there shouldn’t be any corporate tax at all. You should be taxing people, not corporations. Because corporations will always move to the lowest tax jurisdiction when they calculate the total cost.”

Ms. Lang retorts: “Guess where that is in North America? It’s Ontario.” Mr. O’Leary responds with the line you find problematic: “Why don’t you tell me it’s Quebec because you lied to me too.” Ms Lang: It’s Ontario. That’s just a fact. I know you hate it but it’s a fact.” At this point there is a heated exchange for a few more minutes about the whole concept of taxation and wealth transfer. The exchange was as much about its tone as anything substantive.

I can understand that you did not like the fact Mr. O’Leary said Ms. Lang was lying. But in the context of this discussion, it was a bit of hyperbole. Ms. Lang is pretty clear in stating that she was correct and it is fact. While the style may not be to everyone’s taste or preference, it is not a violation of journalistic policy. But even had she not been definitive, it must be seen in realistic context. Had this been a discussion about relative provincial rates of taxation or a broader discussion about Canada’s competitive global tax position, and this was the sum total of the insight, it would be found wanting.

You felt they both could not be right. In some matters, like how one calculates the overall tax burden, there actually can be more than one conclusion. The assessment of the overall tax burden in any jurisdiction is complex, and open to interpretation. While precision is a hallmark of good journalism, it is acceptable to present a range of opinions and conclusions based on the facts. The audience member is left to draw his or her own conclusions. The program has dealt with issues of competitiveness and taxation in the past and undoubtedly will do so in the future in a way that is precise and informative. This segment of the program may have been unsatisfying to you in its tone and content, but it is not a violation of journalistic principles.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman