The health of the CPP: Should reporters second guess expert non-partisan information or can they report it as fact

The complainant, Shawn Davitt, was highly critical of a column dealing with proposed changes to the Canada Pension Plan. He condemned the plan and said it was CBC’s obligation to challenge the actuarial assumptions and assertions that the plan is sound. The column was only tangentially about the health of the plan, and the facts presented were based on non-partisan professional analysis. That is acceptable journalistic practice.

COMPLAINT

In late May 2015 Don Pittis, a CBC News business columnist, published an article on the CBCNews.ca website entitled “CPP plan won’t help savers or stop the pension crisis.” It was written because the Conservative government had recently proposed expansion of the Canada Pension Plan. The Liberals and the NDP also had proposals for expansion of the plan. The article primarily assesses the government’s proposal to allow Canadians to make further voluntary contributions to their Canada Pension Plan.

You found the article wanting on many levels. You called the article “irresponsible and dishonest.” You demanded that CBC acknowledge that the CPP is “an illegal Ponzi scheme.”

You said the article violates CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices because it is not independent but rather “supports the political parties that have enacted and managed the CPP by misleading Canadians regarding problems with the funding of CPP.” You said the plan has an $828 billion dollar shortfall, and the article was wrong when it stated CPP was “fully funded.” You challenged the statement that the plan has any long term viability and challenged CBC journalists to define long term:

The $828 billion error regarding the funding status of the CPP is one of the largest reporting errors by a journalist ever.”

You also dispute the characterization of the CPP as “actuarially sound” based on the reports of the Chief Actuary of Canada. You assert that the assumptions used in these reports are biased, and that CBC should acknowledge that the reporter has not independently assessed and reviewed those actuarial reports. You cite many examples of what you consider bias. Rather than try to summarize them here, those interested can read the detail here.

You also strongly believe that the Canada Pension Plan discriminates on the basis of age and that CBC is perpetuating that discrimination, and you would consider bringing this matter before the Human Rights Commission:

The CBC is discriminating on the basis of age by publishing false information regarding the financial status of the CPP.

You added:

The error and false information contribute to the continuation of widespread government corruption in Canada. An independent press is a key deterrent against corruption. Because the CBC is publishing incomplete and false information, I cannot exercise my democratic right in a meaningful manner as I do not have accurate information upon which to base my voting decisions.

Your correspondence challenges every aspect of the plan, and provides a great deal of detail to back up your position. It is difficult to summarize it because of the detail, so I will provide a link to your correspondence.

That link will also list your various demands for remedy. Among them are that the CBC “create a Wikipedia-type information database on the CBC’s website which consolidates the information in various articles published by the CBC. The database would include definitions and explanations of terminology used in CBC articles.” You want that database to state:

  • the $829 billion unfunded liability
  • the unfunded liability is increasing at a rate of $25 billion per year
  • the 275% increase in CPP contribution rates
  • the CPP’s assets are forecast to be exhausted by 2078

You also demand that the author of the column, along with the manager who responded to your concern, be fired.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, the Director of Journalistic Accountability and Engagement, responded to your concerns. On your specific complaint about the use of the term “fully funded” in referring to the Canada Pension Plan, he acknowledged that there is a technical meaning to the term, and although Mr. Pittis was using it in a more colloquial sense, the article was modified to more accurately reflect that fact:

... it’s true that this phrase has a technical meaning, and it is not the same meaning intended by Mr. Pittis. By using it, we risked causing confusion for a subset of our readers. And we have a responsibility to get things right.

Therefore, we have made appropriate changes to the article, which you can see here . In addition to the fix itself, we have added a prominent clarification box at the bottom of the article.

He pointed out to you that the column was not dealing in any depth with the pension plan, but had another focus entirely:

Mr. Pittis’ article was an analysis of a new proposal by the government to allow voluntary supplementary contributions by Canadians to their CPP. His primary point in this rather brief column was to make the case that people who are not forced to save usually do not, so voluntary plans may not accomplish the public policy goal of having more Canadians financially prepared for their senior years.

As part of Mr. Pittis’ work, he referred the fund’s successful performance of late. Mr. Pittis knew from his research that most analysts believe the CPP is meeting its actuarial requirement to pay out over the long term of at least 75 years.

In that context, his use of the term “fully funded” was meant to be colloquial, distinguishing between Canada’s pension plan and those of many other countries who rely much more heavily on future general tax revenue.

He rejected any suggestion that there was a lack of independence in this column. He explained that the focus and purpose of this short article was to provide analysis of a government suggestion for an expansion of CPP to allow for additional voluntary contributions from Canadians. He pointed out that over the years, CBC News has reported on many aspects of the plan from a variety of perspectives. He suggested that if there was validity of age discrimination in the running of the plan, your concerns would be more properly addressed to the government, and were outside the scope of this article.

REVIEW

It is my mandate to ensure that CBC news and current affairs content meets CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices. It is not to launch a full investigation of the professional standards of the Chief Actuary of Canada. Nor is it the job of a piece of daily journalism. At issue here is what can be reasonably expected of journalists in performing due diligence. You place a lot on the shoulders of one 800-word column. The purpose of that column was not to examine the long term sustainability of the CPP, the assumptions about and perspectives on its health and viability. Rather it was an analysis of a proposed change allowing increased voluntary contributions and its impact on the problem of low savings rates by Canadians. There is one reference to the question of sustainability:

If as many suggest, the government’s latest plan to expand the Canada Pension Plan is pure politics, perhaps the details don’t matter.

But based on the little we know so far, you should not expect the new scheme to solve what many worry is a coming Canadian pension crisis.

At first glance, the plan is enticing, especially after CPP’s recently announced truly fabulous return on its (our) investments.

The plan, famous for being sustainable over the long term and managed by competent professionals without political interference, made a stunning 19 per cent return this year.

The article then goes on to provide context about the reasons for a high rate of return, including some of the market factors that made it so. It addresses and criticizes some of the assumptions about the impact of a voluntary plan. In that context, there is a second reference you took issue with and that is the notion that the plan is “actuarially sound”:

The existing CPP’s claim to fame in the world of pensions is that it is “actuarially sound.” That means that unlike what we have seen in places as diverse as Greece, Detroit and most recently Chicago, the CPPIB has enough money saved and invested to keep on paying out for 75 years based on current expectations.

But there is a big however.

And that is that the amount we contribute off our cheque every month isn’t really enough to keep us comfortable during our long retirement. In fact, in many places the entire month’s CPP cheque would barely cover monthly rent.

That’s super for people who have paid-off houses and other sources of income.

But of course people like that are among the ants of Aesop’s Fable. The ants have been saving for the long winter ahead. They will not be part of the pension crisis, except insofar as they have to pay taxes to prevent the old and destitute grasshoppers from starving.

The problem lies around the fabled grasshoppers who live for the present and never get around to saving. They already have many voluntary ways to save. They just can’t bring themselves to volunteer.

And even if the latest voluntary plan makes it past the consultation phase, it will do nothing to change that.

It’s true that one expects reporters and columnists to base their analysis on facts and information that is accurate. CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices requires it:

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

You question the basic assumptions of the material used to draw the conclusions. You assert that the independent, non-partisan office of the Chief Actuary got it wrong and used biased assumptions. You are entitled to those views.

Actuarial reports are presented to Parliament every 3 years. The last one was tabled December 2013, and was current as at December 2012. Presumably, there will be another in 2016. In general, actuaries are professionals who have an obligation to provide independent analysis using recognized methods. The Chief Actuary of Canada is an independent position, not a political one. It is the basis on which decisions are made.

It is not the job of journalists to do another actuarial study. There may be a time and place to delve into the bigger picture, but it was not the work of this piece. If a recognized authority is quoted, it is not a violation of policy to base an article on that information. The CPP Investment Board, the independent and arm’s length body that invests the Plan’s funds, endorsed the 75 year sustainability of the fund in its 2015 annual report. And while CBC journalists are obliged to meet CBC’s own standards, a scan of the business and financial press indicates that the work of both the Chief Actuary and the Investment Board are taken as a reasonable basis for analysis.

No matter what assertions you make or questions you raise, it is my job to decide whether it was reasonable for Mr. Pittis to base his analysis on the research he did – which also included conversations with other experts in the field. I conclude that there was no violation of policy.

I note that when you pointed out that Mr. Pittis had used the term “fully funded” loosely, and that the CPP plan did not meet that definition, the piece was altered. You are not satisfied with the alteration and the explanation of it and provide an explanation that once again goes well beyond the scope or requirements of this article. Readers of the column will find this explanation:

Clarifications

A previous version of this story said the CPP was “fully funded,” unintentionally using a technical term that means existing assets were enough to pay out all accrued benefits. According to the same technical terminology, the CPP is actually an “open group” plan and is “partially funded” - meaning a combination of invested assets and projected contributions are sufficient to meet its financial obligations over the long term, according to the Chief Actuary of Canada.

You literally submitted a binder’s worth of material to back up your position, including the reports of the Chief Actuary of Canada going back to December 1997. Your analysis has led you to a set of conclusions. They are conclusions you are entitled to – they are not ones that CBC News is obliged to embrace. There is a range of opinion about the management and health of the Canada Pension Plan. Even those who are critical of expansion of the plan, like the C.D. Howe Institute, do not question its value as one of the “pillars of a national retirement-income scheme.” It points out that it is not a pension plan, but in fact a social security scheme, not designed to be fully funded. It doesn’t condemn it out of hand.

There is certainly room for critical reporting about the Canada Pension Plan and provision for the retirement income of all Canadians. Over the years, CBC News has provided such analysis, from a range of perspectives. As Canada’s population ages, and proposals for expansion of the CPP are put forward, there will be opportunity to continue to provide analysis and critical coverage. Journalistic policy requires the news department do so. Reporters are not required to assume the analysis of the position of any one individual. Your strong and detailed criticisms of the plan and its foundations are better brought to the attention of politicians and policy makers.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman