Out of Balance: An interview about a labour dispute had no union perspective

The complainant, Fiona McQuarrie, thought an interview on The Exchange with Amanda Lang during a contract dispute between CN and Unifor failed to reflect the union’s perspective. I agreed.

COMPLAINT

In February of this year, CN and one of its unions, Unifor, had hit an impasse in their contract negotiations. One of the issues that was a sticking point was the union proposal that the company contribute to its Social Justice Fund. Unifor had just reached a collective agreement with CP and that company had agreed to do so. Amanda Lang conducted an interview with John Mortimer, who is the President of Canadian LabourWatch Association. You thought the interview violated CBC News journalistic policy and was “biased because it did not fairly or fully address the union’s side of the issue in question. Also, Mr. Mortimer made allegations and unsupported statements that were not challenged by Ms. Lang.”

You thought that there should have been more “contextualizing” of the organization, so that viewers would have a better idea of the perspective Mr. Mortimer brought to the interview. You thought the interview was “one-sided” and did not live up to the CBC’s own policy on balance and fairness. On a blog you publish, entitled All About Work, you laid out your criticisms of the interview. You sent a link to the blog as part of your initial complaint. In it you elaborated on your concerns over the choice of guest and the organization he represents:

The first problem with this interview was why Mortimer was asked to speak on this particular issue. Although LabourWatch presents itself as being a “balanced” source of information for employees about unions, in reality it is an anti-union organization. It is one of the few organizations that supports Bill C-377 in Canada’s Parliament – a bill that would require much higher levels of financial disclosure from unions than from nearly any other kind of Canadian organization. Additionally, LabourWatch conducted a poll whose results were cited in Parliament as evidence of public support for the bill – but the poll had methodological flaws which were found to violate the ethical principles of Canada’s national marketing research organization. Despite this finding, LabourWatch and its allies continue to claim that the majority of Canadians support the bill, despite it being debated in both the House of Commons and the Senate for more than three years.

You pointed out a number of instances in which you thought Ms. Lang should have challenged many of Mr. Mortimer’s assertions. You pointed out that he referred to the Social Justice Fund several times as a “union action fund” and that the program itself used the term “action fund” in its captions rather than its correct name. When Mr. Mortimer accused the head of the union for misleading the public about how the funds are used, you thought Ms. Lang should have challenged his assertions when he said that they were giving the money to unions in Mexico and Brazil. You pointed out that according to Canada Revenue filings, the proportion of money given to unions is insignificant:

In 2013, the fund spent $2,172,753 on projects outside Canada, but only donated $38,350 directly to other unions. It gave $7,900 to the metalworkers’ union in Mexico and $29,450 to the metalworkers’ union in Brazil, in addition to donating $1,000 to a North American foundation that awards scholarships to union members and their families.

You cited other instances when you thought that Mr. Mortimer took information completely out of context. And you said that when he implied illegal activities by the union in the collection of tax deductible dues because they were not in compliance of the Income Tax Act, Ms. Lang did not ask for elaboration or examples. You said there is absolutely no evidence that Unifor has ambitions to become a political party but that Ms. Lang allowed Mr. Mortimer’s statement that it did go unchallenged.

You said that she had been inaccurate when she asked a question about the Rand formula:

One question that Ms. Lang asked during the interview was: “You’re getting at kind of a bigger picture issue here in terms of the fact that we do pay dues, whether we like it or not. The Rand formula says that if you join a place that is unionized, every employee joins that union via their dues. Are you suggesting that puts us offside the rest of the world?” The Rand formula, which addresses how employees pay dues to a union, is irrelevant to a discussion of a union’s bargaining request for employers to financially support a union initiative. Introducing the Rand formula into this particular discussion gives a biased impression of unions as authoritarian organizations demanding payments to be made to them, rightly or wrongly. Additionally, Ms. Lang’s description of the Rand formula is factually incorrect. In workplaces that use the Rand formula, employees have the choice of whether or not to become union members. Employees who choose not to join the union still must pay dues to the union, to support the cost of the union’s work on behalf of all employees. But they do not become members of the union by making those payments.

In his response the producer pointed out to you that Jerry Dias, the leader of Unifor, had been on the program a few weeks earlier and that another labour leader has also been interviewed. You replied that you were not concerned about a pattern of bias, but that this particular interview certainly was:

I appreciate that union and labour issues are presented on the program. However, my complaint is not about a consistent pattern of bias in the program’s coverage of labour issues. My complaint is about the bias in this specific interview, in inviting a guest with a one-sided perspective that should have been anticipated, and then by the interviewer letting allegations and inaccurate statements go unchallenged during the interview.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The Exchange with Amanda Lang, Robert Lack, responded to your concerns. He addressed your concern that the interview was one sided:

Certainly I think it is fair to say that Mr. Mortimer espoused a “conservative” or “right-wing” view. In fact, his view was much more strident and one-sided than our producers had expected. Amanda Lang’s questions were neutral. And she did challenge him on some of his views and in doing so provided some balance in the interview. But we had been hoping for a more “middle of the road” - type guest. In hindsight, I don’t think we did a great job that day of finding one. We will work harder to do so in the future.

He went on to explain that in daily programming it is often the case that there will only be a single interview with someone with a particular point of view on a given topic. He said balance is achieved by presenting other viewpoints on the same topic within a short period of time. He pointed out that labour issues had been covered from a union perspective around the same time:

In terms of union and labour issues, I would point out that in just the two weeks prior to that Feb 19th program, we featured interviews with Jerry Dias, President of Unifor (Feb 11) on upcoming auto industry negotiations, and with Leo Gerard, President of the United Steelworkers (Feb 2) about labour relations in the oil industry.

REVIEW

You raise several points in your complaint. First, that it was wrong that there was no information given about Mr. Mortimer’s organization, Canadian LabourWatch Association. In fact, CBC policy frowns on attaching labels to organization, categorizing them by terms like left or right. Best practice is to provide some information about the organization so that members of the public can draw their own conclusions. Further, CBC policy about identifying interviewees is quite specific:

We are open and straightforward when we present interviewees and their statements. We make every effort to disclose the identity of interviewees and to give the context and explanations necessary for the audience to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements. In exceptional cases and for serious cause, we may decide to withhold such information in whole or in part. In such cases we explain the situation to the audience without disclosing the information that must be kept secret.

It might have been helpful to provide some context about the organization Mr. Mortimer represented.

The interview was framed around the disagreement about the demand for a contribution to the union’s Social Justice Fund and what that fund represented. But it was also in the context of an imminent work stoppage:

Lang: Shippers may have to prepare for another nationwide rail strike. Just days after a strike ended at CP Rail, Unifor says it will hold a strike vote at CN Rail. The sticking point in negotiations: CN’s refusal to contribute to a union action fund. CN called it an issue of principle and said in a news release, we are not prepared to support such a union agenda. Unifor’s president Jerry Dias called that a misrepresentation, and said that if we can establish this fund at CP, we can do the same at CN. It was certainly something we talked over in today’s story meeting.

[From the story meeting]

Lang: Should the employer share the cost of union activities?

Staffer 1: It would work for CN. The principle is, if they don’t want to pay directly into this fund, then pay indirectly, as the rest of the union funding comes.

Staffer 2: They don’t necessarily have an issue with donating money to food banks or women’s shelters which Unifor says this money goes to. They’re concerned that they’re subsidizing a union that will only turn around and fight them.

[End of story meeting segment]

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices lays out expectations of accuracy and balance. The requirement for accuracy says that “We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience.”

The policy on balance is the most pertinent here and it 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.

There is some expectation from the introduction that both sides’ characterization of the fund would be present, that the arguments pro and con would be examined. That certainly did not happen. And given that the strike or lockout was imminent, it did not fulfill CBC policy that on matters of controversy, both sides would be presented. The introduction did not represent the union side very effectively. It is true the union was holding a strike vote, but CN’s news release at the time says:

Failing a negotiated settlement or Unifor’s agreement to move forward with binding arbitration this weekend, CN will prepare itself to exercise its right under the Canada Labour Code to lockout Unifor’s 4,800 members effective 2300 hours, Monday, Feb. 23.

The policy allows presentation of both or multiple sides to be presented over a reasonable period of time. Mr. Lack points out there were labour representatives on the show weeks before this interview. I agree with you that it is not relevant in this context – because it did not address the issue at hand.

You were concerned that Ms. Lang presented the dispute only from CN’s point of view when she stated that the “sticking point [was] CN’s refusal to contribute to a union action fund.” CN’s own release from that time cites this as the major issue but also cites increased demands based on the settlement they had just achieved with CP:

Unifor, which had not even asked for a strike vote until this week despite six months of negotiations and the fact its contract with CN expired on Dec. 31, 2014, further deviated from this near-settlement when it unreasonably increased many of its demands after negotiating a tentative labour agreement with Canadian Pacific last weekend.

The union accused CN of using the fund issue as an excuse to have altered other areas where agreement had been achieved:

CN is refusing to provide you a fair contract. They have removed all previously agreed to changes to the agreement that they signed this round of bargaining. Their economic offer was an insult. CN is attempting to divert the attention from the contents of their offer by portraying these negotiations as being about one issue and it is not.

From the statements of both sides, I agree it would have been more accurate to say one of the major “sticking points” was the refusal of CN to contribute to the fund.

You challenged Ms. Lang’s characterization of the Rand formula. She stated “The Rand formula says that if you join a place that is unionized, every employee joins that union via their dues.” You argued that was not the case – that in “workplaces that use the Rand formula, employees have the choice whether or not to become union members.” While you are technically correct that membership is optional, functionally it does not seem to work that way, and according to people I consulted, not everyone would be aware of the distinction. But in the end, this example, as well as others you cited, underlies the fact that this interview failed to represent an alternative point of view on a matter of controversy.

Daily programs face time pressures – both in the amount of time devoted to any given story and in finding the right person to provide the information. A single point of view interview is acceptable. But this was in the midst of a labour impasse, and there was little in this segment that presented the union’s characterization of its Social Justice Fund, nor of its position on the impasse in talks. The program did not return to the issue at a later date.

It is acceptable in some cases to allow an interviewee to present opinion and his or her point of view. It is not realistic to suppose any interviewer will be able to challenge every assertion. And sometimes it is valuable to let the speaker have his or her say. That would be appropriate if the purpose of the interview was to explore a thinker’s ideas, for example. But this was not the case here. The guest presented a very strong point of view, one that was clearly opposed to the perspective of the union. Ms. Lang tried to steer a more neutral conversation. But that was not enough. There was a lack of balance in this segment.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman