The NDP and its "socialist past": Choose your words carefully for accuracy

The complainant, Herschel Hardin, was concerned about an election story about the NDP’s promise of balanced budgets. The article said the NDP was distancing itself from its “socialist past,” implying that socialism meant deficits and too much spending. I agreed that in the context of this piece, attribution would have made the piece more accurate. Compressed writing can undermine precision.

COMPLAINT

In the course of the election campaign, on September 16th, CBCNews.ca published an article entitled “NDP promises 4 years of balanced budgets in fiscal plan.” The story began with this sentence:

Leading the polls by a razor-thin margin, the New Democratic Party is promising four years of balanced budgets in a bid to reassure voters that the party is throwing off its socialist past.

You objected to that sentence:

This is put forward in an unqualified way, as if it were a given. Is balancing the budget, however, a throwing off of the NDP’s socialist past or is that framing of the NDP and/or socialism the product of repeated antagonistic framing by other parties and largely right-wing media over the years? If the latter, the CBC shouldn’t be a party to it and should issue a correction.

You said CBC was repeating an ongoing misconception that “reinforced the right-wing myth about the NDP’s fiscal management.” You pointed out that government deficits were actually the creation of Conservative and Liberal governments at the federal level. You pointed out that on the provincial level several CCF/NDP governments have “by and large been more fiscally responsible than right-wing federal governments. Tommy Douglas and the CCF in Saskatchewan were against deficits – among other things, didn’t like paying interest to banks and wealthy investors – and carefully reconstructed Saskatchewan’s financing while avoiding deficits. In a later period, Roy Romanow was the first head of government to eliminate deficits, even ahead of Alberta, after many years of deficit spending by all governments.”

You said the use of the opening sentence of the story implied that incurring deficits is inherently socialist. You argue that is not the case and that socialist governments endeavour to provide a fiscal environment that generates enough revenue to support progressive programs without incurring undue debt.

You wanted CBC to correct the story and issue an apology and to do so in a timely fashion since the story was written in the middle of an election campaign.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Senior Producer of Politics for CBCNews.ca, Chris Carter, responded to your concerns. He apologized for the delay in responding, and noted you deserved to have a reply during the campaign. He then told you that the use of that line in the story was not intended to “suggest that deficits are a defining characteristic of socialism or to join in any inaccurate framing of the NDP.” He said the intention was to provide some context for the NDP’s decision to make a balanced budget a central part of their platform:

In doing so, the party was clearly trying to confront the “antagonistic framing” by its rivals that you mention. We were not commenting on the veracity of the framing, nor making the claim deficits are the exclusive or defining element of socialism – but rather that the bold step of rejecting deficit financing was the NDP’s way of demonstrating that it intended to be fiscally responsible while at the same time removing a well-worn line of attack by its rivals.

He added that it might have been better to provide more context in the story, including the fact that the party had voted to remove the word “socialist” from the preamble of its constitution in 2014. But he reiterated that he did not think the story misrepresented the intent of the policy:

I don’t think the line in our story misrepresents the intentions of Mr. Mulcair and his advisers, which was to present a new face on the party in this campaign and neuter attacks by the Conservatives in particular.

REVIEW

Besides the obvious need for accuracy, as specified in CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices, there are other parts of the JSP that are relevant. There is policy about the use of language and an admonition to avoid stereotypes. Under quality and precision of language, the JSP States:

We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience.

I take Mr. Carter at his word that there was no intent to imply that socialism is associated with large deficits or fiscal irresponsibility but that the intention was to provide the context, the reality of the false image that the party had been saddled with. There is always a danger when using shorthand, using a familiar phrase or saying to convey meaning quickly. That is what the problem here is. I agree with you that by phrasing the opening of the piece in this fashion, it comes across as a statement of fact. There is nothing in the subsequent paragraphs that provide any perspective or context about why socialism might be associated with deficit spending. It is not until the very end that there is some reference to the attacks on the party’s position:

Late last month, the Tories and Liberals held separate press conferences to attack what they called a multibillion-dollar gap in NDP promises. The Grits put the number at $28 billion over four years, while the Conservatives said there would be an $8-billion gap for just the first year of an NDP government.

In making a sweeping statement such as the party is making “a bid to throw off its socialist past,” some attribution or qualifier would make the statement more balanced, nuanced and comprehensible. It is legitimate to point out the party was dealing with a perception about its past, but it simply is not clear enough in the way it is written. This did not meet CBC’s journalistic standards. I agree with you that there is value in reviewing with staff that it is important to think carefully before using the clichéd turn of phrase that finds its way into news writing.

It is unfortunate that the response came after the election campaign. I acknowledge the sheer volume of correspondence and the burden of election coverage is a challenge, but there is a strong responsibility to respond to complaints about election coverage in a timely fashion within the writ period.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman