Liberal Politics and the WSO

The complainant, Balpreet Singh, legal counsel of the World Sikh Organization, complained that a story that said his organization had backed the nominee in a Vancouver federal riding was false. He found many other inaccuracies in the story. I found that it was based on solid reporting.

COMPLAINT

You are legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization. You were concerned that a story published on CBCNews.ca on December 9, 2014 contained “damaging factual errors and false allegations.” The story, headlined “B.C. Sikhs quit Liberal Party to protest Justin Trudeau’s ‘star’ candidate” quoted many disaffected Sikh Liberals in Vancouver who said they were going to leave the party in protest over the nomination process and the perceived support for one candidate over the one they favored. The story said they were concerned that Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau was being influenced by people associated with the organization you represent, the World Sikh Organization. They were characterized as “a militant minority.”

The story also provided information about the history of the WSO which you thought characterized it as an “extremist and fundamentalist group,” which you said is false. You listed a series of other elements of the story that you also said were false:

  • Harjit Sajjan [the candidate] was “WSO backed”
  • WSO represents a “militant minority” in the Sikh community
  • Prem Vinning is our “president”- he is in fact our past-President
  • WSO was founded to “fight for a Sikh state”
  • WSO is involved in the “glorification of terrorists”
  • A “WSO leader” in 1991 claimed that Inderjit Reyat was a “good friend”

You also stated that the reporter, Terry Milewski, did not provide you with “a meaningful opportunity” to reply to the allegations. You said you made efforts to meet with Mr. Milewski, which he declined to do, and he published his story shortly after you asked him for more details about the allegations he had listed. You said he did not quote the statement you had provided him earlier in the week.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Director for Journalism Standards and Practices, David Studer, replied to your concerns. He noted that the statement that the WSO is “extremist and fundamentalist” was attributed to an individual. He explained Mr. Milewski included the statement because he believed it was “an honest opinion from a person directly involved in this matter” and based on his knowledge of the situation, as well as the history. Mr. Studer added that he believed the candidate was properly characterized as “WSO backed” and that the “script’s other characterizations of WSO and its history were fairly stated.”

He explained that the reference to a “militant minority” was clearly the reflection of the views of the people who are leaving the Liberal Party because of the way the nomination process played out in Vancouver South. He pointed out that the phrase was not presented as a fact but was preceded by the words “because they feel.”

He also told you that there were several references to Prem Vinning in the article, and in those he was correctly identified as past president. He acknowledged that there was an error in the online photo caption, which was corrected soon after the story was posted.

He also disagreed the story stated that the WSO glorifies terrorism. He pointed out that the article states that there has been controversy around the organization over its history because of the extremist positions of some of its leaders and supporters, which included the glorification of terrorists. He added that phrasing it this way provided the needed context.

Finally, Mr. Studer replied to your complaint that your organization was not given adequate time to respond and that the statement you sent was not used. He pointed out that the story did in fact quote from an email addressing the allegation that some B.C. Liberals were making that the WSO influenced the party to prefer one candidate. He said the story mentioned that the part of your statement that said the WSO is a human rights group that does not advocate violence and does not endorse political candidates or parties.

He said that in the week leading up to the publication of his story, Mr. Milewski sought your comment on some of the other aspects of his story, and clearly laid out the issues it would cover:

Further, in an exchange of emails during the week before our story appeared, Mr. Milewski did seek your comment on the material to be contained in his story. His view, which having read the exchange I share, is that his questions were generally met with questions rather than answers.

But from my reading of the e-mail strand, it is clear that he did indeed put the main points of the story before you. He continues to pursue this and related stories and, as he did last week, will no doubt contact you from time to time to seek comment and discuss a potential on-camera interview.

REVIEW

The story in question is about the decision of a significant group of Liberal supporters who say they are leaving the party because they are angry about the nomination process in the federal riding of Vancouver South. The story goes on to quote them extensively about their reasons for concern:

In an embarrassing blow to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, a large group of Sikh Liberals in British Columbia is quitting the party, saying Trudeau is being “manipulated” by Sikhs under the banner of the World Sikh Organization.

“We think this Liberal Party’s been hijacked by the WSO,” said Rajinder Singh Bhela, a longtime Liberal and former general secretary of the Ross Street Temple, Vancouver’s largest Sikh temple.

You raised three issues about the story: that the WSO was mischaracterized, that the candidate was not backed by WSO, and that you were not given an appropriate opportunity to respond.

There are several aspects of Journalistic Standards and Practices that are relevant here:

Accuracy, Fairness, Balance and Impartiality. They all demand that a range of views be presented, that Canadians be given the facts they need to come to their own conclusions about matters of public interest, and that the reporter use his or her knowledge and expertise to come to conclusions based on the facts. The policy on Balance states:

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

And the policy on Impartiality:

We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.

You say it was inaccurate to claim that the WSO represents a minority in the Sikh community. That statement is given as reason that the disgruntled Liberals are leaving; it is attributed to them. One is quoted as saying: “The WSO is not representative of Canada’s Sikhs.” In the context of this piece, it is no violation of policy to have it in the story.

Mr. Milewski provides some historical context about the WSO’s past, and is careful to talk about the militancy of some members, not all. He is drawing on decades of experience covering the Sikh community:

The WSO says it’s a human rights organization that does not advocate violence. But over its 30-year history, and into this century, it has been controversial because of extremist positions taken by some of its leaders and supporters. That includes the glorification of terrorists, such as the assassins of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, and casting doubt on the proven role of Sikh separatists in the Air India bombing. One WSO leader said, in 1991, that Air India bomb-maker Inderjit Reyat was a good friend.

He provides balance to his statements by quoting yours, “The WSO says it’s a human rights organization that does not advocate violence.”

The other statement you challenged was that the candidate standing for nomination in Vancouver South is “WSO backed.” The statement is made based on the many people interviewed with extensive knowledge of both Liberal politics and the Sikh community, as well as the reporter’s independent investigation. It is attributed to one of those critics elsewhere in the piece. That statement is balanced in several ways: Your email is quoted, saying the WSO does not endorse parties or candidates. The candidate himself is quoted, giving his perspective on the nomination process, and he is also quoted as saying he is not a member of the WSO.

The story also quotes Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau in response to the criticism of the nomination of the candidate. He provides a different perspective about why some long time Liberal party members are disgruntled:

“In various situations across the country," Trudeau said, "there have been issues with different candidates and some people have chosen to withdraw.”

“There are winners and there are people who don't win. And, from time to time, the people who didn’t succeed through the process will have complaints, and that's just part and parcel of it.”

As for the issue of whether you were given an adequate opportunity to present your perspective on this story, Mr. Milewski first emailed you on December 3, letting you know that he was working on a story about the Liberal nomination party in Vancouver South. He told you about the accusations from some Liberal members that the WSO “has influenced the Liberal party to prefer a candidate…” and that the WSO was being characterized as an extremist group. You provided a statement, part of which was used in the story:

The World Sikh Organization of Canada is a non-partisan, human rights organization. We do not, as a matter of policy, endorse or support any specific political party or individual candidates. The WSO, like many other Canadian organizations, is comprised of individual members who have diverse political interests and affiliations. Some of our members are involved with the Conservative Party of Canada, others with the New Democratic Party, and still others who are Liberals. As Canadians in a democratic society, they are free to run and/or support a political party or candidate of their choice. The WSO maintains its independence from all political parties.

He emailed you again on December 9 informing you of other details elaborating on aspects of the story:

We have statements from the WSO’s critics that the WSO and its supporters have a long history of encouraging terrorism - by publishing praise for the “martyrs” who assassinated Mrs Gandhi and Gen. Vaidya, by endorsing the actions of other members of banned terrorist groups, by suggesting that Sikh separatists were not involved in the Air India bombing, by promoting the discredited theory that the Indian government blew up its own plane, and by endorsing the falsehood that Bob Rae blamed Sikhs generally for the bombing, when he actually blamed a particular group of Sikh separatists.

All of these statements are backed up by facts. How do you explain them?

You replied that you would like to meet with him that afternoon to discuss these questions in more detail. He explained that he would not be able to do so because he was on deadline and asked for a comment in an email. Your email in reply stated:

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the insinuations, but as I’m sure you know, none of what you have written is true in any meaningful sense of that word.

You questioned the deadline for the story, wondering why it could not be delayed as it was a feature and not a hard news piece. You also asked a series of questions for clarification. Mr. Milewski’s response was to take you up on the offer of a face to face on the record interview. Mr. Milewski tells me he has had no response to that offer.

You were in fact given a chance to respond to the allegations that day, although not in a full interview. CBC policy on fairness calls for balance over time. If the face to face interview could not be done for that day, the offer remains and there would be an obligation to publish your more extensive explanation and perspective. As it stands, I believe that you were aware of what the story would cover and there was no violation in the process of seeking the point of view of an individual or institution who is the subject of a story.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman