Talking with the Grand Chief: Asking probing questions is not biased

The complainant, Brent Tolmie, saw a deliberate attempt to discredit the Conservative party in an interview with the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. The interview was straightforward and legitimately asked questions about the federal election.

COMPLAINT

You complained about an interview conducted by CBC News Network host Andrew Nichols with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde. The interview was done because a rally to mark the return of Camp Ipperwash in southwestern Ontario was scheduled for later in the day. You said that the “questions were so biased that it was comical.” You accused Mr. Nichols of trying to determine Mr. Bellegarde’s voting preference, even though the ostensible purpose of the interview was the return of the land. You pointed out that “the Natives have been trying to get it back for seventy years,” and that “should have been celebrated.”

After you heard from the executive producer of the program, who reviewed the questions and answers, you still believed that the interviewer’s purpose in the questions he asked and how he phrased them was to turn the land agreement into something negative and to get Mr. Bellegarde to indicate he would not vote for the Conservatives. (The interview occurred during the federal election campaign.) You said:

I still contend that the tone and intention of his remarks were to create a negative impression of the agreement and to try to bring out a political bias with the National Chief.... Question 3 was very deceptive. First of all Nichols suggests the community vote was conclusive (a 6 to 1 ratio of some 900 voters seems very good) but instead of asking what the pro’s and the con’s of the agreement are, he focusses on the 1 in 6 “no” vote. His intention then becomes clear when he brings in the political aspect. Why? Well question 7 clearly suggests why. “so are you suggesting you would not vote for one particular party”. What a leading question with no rationale to support it! Much to Bellegarde’s credit he indicated that the National Assembly is non political.

You accuse Mr. Nichols of attempting to sway First Nations votes by trying to spin this story in a negative light by the questions he posed to the National Chief:

Nichols and CBC have tried to make a good news story about the government concluding a long standing and festering native issue into a “political football”. If this is not a case of biased, unfair, very partial journalism, I don’t know what is. To try to sway a large voting block of native voters, at this critical time, such as this line of questioning has attempted to do is shoddy journalism at best and more likely well intended political persuasion at worst.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Aubrey Silverberg, the executive producer in charge on weekends, replied to your concerns. He said “I am confident there was absolutely no intent by our host or any of our journalists to persuade anyone of any particular political point of view.” He said he concluded that after carefully reviewing the interview with your concerns in mind. He listed the seven questions Mr. Nichols put to Mr. Bellegarde that day:

1. What’s your reaction to this deal being signed?

2. How collaborative was the effort involved - with government and community leaders - in getting to this point?

3. The community vote was conclusive, 5 to 1 in favour of signing the agreement, but that's not unanimous. Critics of the deal say there is some ongoing divisiveness within the community. What do you make of that?

4. What impact do you think this agreement will have on the country, as a whole?

5. In terms of the election – I’m sure you are watching it closely - is there anything that is standing out for you?

6 How important is it do you think, for First Nations people in this country to vote?

7. So are you saying you would not vote for one particular party?

He said the questions indicate that the largest part of the interview was exactly on topic – the agreement on Ipperwash. He stated that to discuss the election was the “logical extension of the answers provided by the chief.” He added that they were there to achieve further clarity and to provide context to the situation.

REVIEW

The context of any particular piece of reporting, or of a particular interview, is critical. The context of this interview was the signing of an important agreement involving First Nations rights. The timing was in the middle of an election campaign in which there was discussion about the significance of First Nations voters and a drive by some leaders in the community to encourage higher participation. Mr. Nichols was speaking to someone who had knowledge, accountability and analysis of the situation.

It is also fair to say, while Mr. Bellegarde officially took a nonpartisan position, the relationship between his organization, and many other First Nations groups, and the federal government had been difficult and challenging. And while the Grand Chief remained neutral, members of his organization had been publicly a lot more critical at an annual meeting in July, in the run-up to the federal election. This is part of an article for the Saskatoon Star Phoenix outlining the state of relations between the Conservative government and First Nations. It is echoed in other coverage of the event:

This summer’s annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations saw a change, with leaders speaking out against the Conservative government.

“We’ve had nine years of a Tory government that has done nothing positive for our people,” said Ghislain Picard, the AFN regional chief for Quebec. Chief Pat Madabhee from Ontario put it more succinctly: “We’ve got to get rid of these Conservatives.”

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde wisely remained neutral. His is not a partisan position and the office holder must work with all governments on behalf of First Nations people.

Given this context, Mr. Nichols’ interview makes perfect sense. He asked about the matter at hand, and probed the level of support for the agreement. You have written this office many times with concerns about what you see as an ongoing CBC News strategy to portray the former Conservative government in a negative light. The interview is not part of some strategy; it is “Journalism 101” – allowing an interviewee his or her say, but also probing deeper to get at underlying and ongoing issues.

This is the question, (along with the answer) that you say was “deceptive” and a set-up for later questions. In reading it, I am not sure why you would say that:

NICHOLS: The community vote was conclusive, 5 to 1 in favour of signing the agreement, but that’s not unanimous. Critics of the deal say there is some ongoing divisiveness within the community. What do you make of that?

BELLEGARDE Again, it is time now that the agreement has been ratified by the majority it is time for healing, time for bringing together the people - the elders, the youth, the women and having the ceremonies and taking the time to bring their families and communities together because it is going to be through that unity of working collectively together that you are going to bring about positive change and now that this has been behind them the agreement being ratified they can look toward implementation, they can look towards reconciliation and bring about the peace among themselves as families and community members.

Mr. Nichols and other journalists are meant to probe and to ensure that other views and perspectives are represented in an interview. The very nature of reporting is to probe, to look for other perspectives, to ask challenging questions. That does not happen because of a particular agenda, although in the broad sense it is to hold those with power accountable. So long as a range of views and opinions are sought over a reasonable period of time and that those with different views are “treated even-handedly” when presenting those views, it is acceptable practice.

After some other exchanges, Mr. Nichols turned to the federal election. It is true it is not entirely on topic, but he was talking to a significant First Nations leader and it does not need much justification to then ask some questions about the campaign:

NICHOLS: It’s 2015 and there’s an election in about a month from now. I just want to ask you where you are in terms of the election. I am sure you are watching it closely. Is there anything that is standing out for you?

BELLEGARDE: Well the thing that stands out is not only for First Nations people, it’s all about closing the gap, and whatever party leader, whatever party embraces the idea of policy and legislation and key investments in education, in housing and training and proper schools and to deal with the violence amongst our people; proper child care - that’s where we need to start putting our energies toward supporting because it really is about closing the gap. Canada is rated 6th in terms of the United Nations human development index quality of life. Apply the same indices to our people, we’re 63rd. That’s the gap that needs to be closed. so whatever leader, potential prime minister gets that fact, gets that point and starts making concrete statements, that’s where we gotta start leaning because if that happens, the gap closes, First Nations not only win, Canada wins as a country. The gap closes.

NICHOLS: How important is it, do you think, for First Nations people in this country to vote?

BELLEGARDE: Very important. It’s time to bring about that change. Our issues matter, our priorities matter, our people matter our votes matter. We can influence 51 ridings. That’s the message we are trying to get out and again it’s all about closing the gap, quality of life. Access to potable water. It’s not acceptable to see the poverty amongst our people

It is at this point in the interview you believe Mr. Nichols’ bias came out, and that he had raised the issue of some dissent earlier to justify asking this question. That is one interpretation, but I do not share it. Mr. Bellegarde had been on record as non-partisan while many of his fellow chiefs had been much more critical of the government. So this question may be seen as provocative, but it is not inappropriate, or asked with the sole intent of discrediting a party:

NICHOLS: So are you saying you would not vote for one particular party?

BELLEGARDE: No again. The AFN is not partisan. I will work with whoever gets elected on October 19th no question. We’re not partisan. But it’s important to get the vote mobilized. First Nations vote because we can influence 51 ridings. And as I mentioned it’s all about closing the gap. Whatever party starts espousing very clear statement and language about policies and legislation that closes the gap that’s where we should start leading because it’s in the best interests of this country to close the gap.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices states:

Fairness

In our information gathering and reporting, we treat individuals and organizations with openness and respect. We are mindful of their rights. We treat them even-handedly.

Balance

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.

Impartiality

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

Mr. Nichols and Mr. Bellegarde explore issues around the First Nations vote. Mr. Bellegarde is able to answer and put across his position. There is no violation of CBC journalistic policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman