Savage satire: Marg Delahunty vs Stephen Harper

Mary Walsh, aka Marg Delahunty, produced an anti-Harper rant during the election campaign. The complainant, Brian Kelly, accused CBC of taking her side and endorsing her anti-Harper stance. There was nothing wrong with doing a story about her protest. But her video should not have been embedded on the CBC website. It’s a small difference but an external link is the way to go.

COMPLAINT

You wrote to express your deep concern regarding an article which featured an anti-Stephen Harper video published on the CBCNews.ca Newfoundland site. The article, entitled ‘Save’ Stephen Harper, Marg Delahunty says in protest video, prominently included an embedded version of the video created by Mary Walsh, one of the original cast members of the CBC comedy program This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Ms. Walsh uses her character Marg Delahunty, the warrior princess, to call out politicians and create political satire. In this case she was calling for the defeat of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

You thought the video was outrageous and typical of the bias of CBC news coverage of the election. You accused CBC News of branding Mr. Harper as a Nazi. For you this was the last straw in what you perceived to be an active campaign to defeat the Conservative government. You characterized the video accompanying the story as anti-democratic:

(But) this segment was absolutely disgusting and goes against the very mission statement that CBC has in place...The CBC has put themselves in the election by telling voters to not elect Harper, they also call him a Nazi which is terrible. Why does the CBC get so involved with politics when their mandate is the opposite. As a veteran I am disgusted the way they treat Harper as this is completely against the very democracy I protected.

You also accused CBC of registering with Elections Canada “as a fighting force for the Liberals”:

With that said, when the CBC journalists and all left wing media are registered with Elections Canada then you know these journalists are not unbiased so everything they write is biased, this is not what journalists are to do and I find it disgusting that democracy is now on a slippery slope to dictatorship style governments with journalists and unions dictating what information to give to the electorate, this is not democracy.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Senior Managing Director for Atlantic Canada, Denise Wilson, responded to your concerns. She told you that CBC had not been involved in any way in the creation of the Mary Walsh video. She explained that Ms. Walsh was completely responsible for its production, and that it was posted on her personal “online protest page” entitled “Marg brings change.” She emphasized that the views expressed were Ms. Walsh’s and not CBC’s.

She added that two days after the video was posted on Ms. Walsh’s site, CBC News staff decided to do a news story about its creation and provided a link to it to “illustrate the story.” She explained some of the rationale for doing so:

On October 7, two days after it had been publicly released, CBC News posted an online story about recent artistic performances critical of Mr.Harper, noting that Ms. Walsh as Marg Delahunty had now joined Blue Rodeo, Hey Rosetta! and Yukon Blonde in expressing her political views. It was not serious political coverage or analysis; nevertheless, we felt it contributed one more perspective to CBC’s extensive cross-platform election coverage.

She also told you she did not think that there was any reference or comparison to Hitler, which she agreed would be entirely inappropriate and offensive. She outlined the German references:

At one point, she suggests the government has cloaked itself in secrecy. In that vein she refers to Mr. Harper, using his first name, as “Stasi Steve”, an alliterative, if clearly absurd, reference to the former East German secret police. Seconds later, she follows that with the alliterative Germanic honorific “Herr”, ahead of his surname. Her rant is exaggerated, inflated, evidently untrue and, certainly, partisan, but in our view it is not hateful.

Ms. Wilson did not comment on your concern that CBC journalists are all “registered with Elections Canada” and therefore were unable to cover the election fairly. You raised this issue in your response to her, when you asked me to review the matter. During the course of the campaign several people wrote to question the independence of CBC journalists because the union that represents them, the Canadian Media Guild, registered itself as a third party with Elections Canada. The CBC News Director of Journalistic Accountability and Public Engagement explained the situation. He noted that while he could understand why people might be concerned, the CMG is independent of CBC, and has a right to choose to do what it wishes, regardless of what individual members might think. He mentioned that CBC journalists have an obligation to remain independent, and are bound by CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices:

The CBC has no say over the choices made by the union. So the issue for us is not whether it is good or fair of the CMG to involve itself in an advocacy exercise. The issue is how to make sure that such a move does not compromise our journalism. On this measure, I can assure you that our process is very robust, and we have the necessary tools.

For one thing, our editorial procedures are rigorous. Yes, every news organization makes mistakes. But our editors and producers debate every story, every day. And the question of political bias is always at the top of the list of considerations....I should remind you, too, that our journalists are individuals, not a monolithic group. It is unrealistic to assume that the CMG’s stand necessarily reflects the views or ideologies of each of its members. I can assure you, though, that we take steps to mitigate any individual conflict of interest a journalist might face. So if we had a journalist who was directly involved in this CMG advocacy work, we recused them from being involved in our election coverage. But if another journalist pays obligatory union dues but is not involved in another way, we feel comfortable (and I think you should, as well) that the CMG's actions do not compromise that journalist's ability to do his/her job.

REVIEW

CBC News’s election coverage was broad and extensive. This was a story that noted a rather outrageous bit of political theatre, which came on the heels of other strong anti-government statements from prominent Canadian entertainment figures. To note that trend, and talk about the content, is a legitimate news pursuit. The story begins by providing some context – that this “protest video” is one of several political statements from well-known Canadians outside politics:

First it was Blue Rodeo, then Hey Rosetta! and Yukon Blonde. Now Marg Delahunty, a.k.a. Newfoundland and Labrador comedian Mary Walsh, has released a tongue-in-cheek anti-Conservative YouTube video.

The article then goes on to quote Walsh as her Marg Delahunty alter-ego. It seems pretty clear that it is she who has created and produced the video. The story is not written as if the CBC online writer is endorsing her comments.

I can understand, however, there might be some confusion as Ms. Walsh is strongly associated with CBC through her presence on the CBC comedy program This Hour Has 22 Minutes. The story does try to signal its detachment from CBC by noting Ms. Walsh “has released a tongue-in-cheek anti-Conservative YouTube video.” It might have been wiser to be more explicit. And the staff at CBCNews.ca might have been wiser to provide an external link to YouTube rather than embedding the video right at the top of the story. This might seem a narrow distinction but having the video listed as an “external link” with the standard statement that accompanies them on the CBC site would have signalled some distance: If you look on the website, this is what you read before clicking on an external link:

Note: CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external links.

There is nothing wrong with providing readers access to the video; that is an expectation of digital reporting, but given how inflammatory this video was, it would have been preferable to create some distance.

I have watched Ms. Walsh’s rant and do not find anything to support your contention that she likens Mr. Harper to Hitler. Her one explicit reference to a German entity is to the Stasi, the former intelligence service of East Germany. Not every reference to matters German, including the form of address of “herr” automatically invokes Hitler and naziism. The references are not flattering, but I think it is a stretch to invoke Hitler, which I agree would be distasteful and inappropriate. Ms. Walsh’s video is certainly outrageous, and that is one of the things that made it newsworthy. I disagree that it is anti-democratic. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It allows the right of free expression and a free and unfettered press. Ms. Walsh is free to create and publish a strongly anti-Conservative video.

Living in a democracy means you will hear and see things with which you violently disagree. It is sometimes messy. It leads to a situation where the union of a certain group of journalists exercised its democratic right to register as a third party with Elections Canada. It’s messy because individually those journalists have an obligation, as employees of CBC, to abide by its journalistic standards and practices. This office is one of the mechanisms in place to ensure they do. The news department also commissions an independent evaluation of its election coverage. The Office of the Ombudsman commissions independent advice panels to monitor CBC’s election coverage, and the results of their work is shared with the Board of Directors and with the public through my annual report. Your assertion that CBC journalists did “everything in their power to get either the Liberals or NDP in power” is an opinion you are entitled to, but it doesn’t make it so. I have done reviews of election stories where I have found some fault in the coverage. I have not found evidence of persistent or systemic bias.

In this case, it would have been better to be clear about the relationship between the article and the video, but writing about it and presenting it does not violate CBC journalistic policy. In its mission statement, CBC News endeavours to reflect “accurately the range of experiences and points of view of all citizens.” Some of those views and perspectives will go against your views and perspectives. That is the case here. Reporting on this election event does not contradict the CBC mission, as you stated.

Once again, as I have in several other election-related reviews, I note management response reached you after the election. I hope that CBC management finds a better way to manage complaints and ensure responses come before voting day.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman