Balance lacking

The complainant, David Murrell, thought a story critical of the criminal pardons system was biased because there was no voice speaking in favour. I agreed with him that there should have been other perspectives provided in this political piece.

COMPLAINT

You thought that an article presenting Ralph Goodale’s remarks about regulations on criminal pardons only presented the point of view of the Liberal government. You said the news story was “one-sided” and “represents pro-government propaganda.” The article was entitled “Public safety minister vows to overhaul ‘punitive’ criminal pardon system.”

Ottawa parliamentary bureau journalist Alison Crawford reported on remarks the minister made that were critical of the changes to the pardon system made by the Conservative government almost four years ago. You said the article “showcases Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s new policy to soften policies against convicted criminals, and the article quotes him as criticizing the previous Conservative policy. But this article only quotes two other people, both of whom support the current Liberal government’s new policy.”

You noted that no other voices were heard in the article, and you believed one of the two people quoted, criminal lawyer Norm Boxall, had donated money to a Liberal Party leadership candidate in 2006.

You noted the absence of any counter-arguments made the article one-sided and violated CBC journalistic policy.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The senior producer for politics on CBCNews.ca, Chris Carter, replied to your concerns. He told you that while he did not agree with your assessment of the article, he did agree with you “to the extent that . . . it would have benefited from a Conservative Party voice.”

He disagreed that this was a new policy, as you had stated. He said there is no new policy at this time. He pointed out that Minister Goodale told Ms. Crawford that he thought there was a need to re-examine the criminal pardon system because some of the changes the Conservatives enacted were punitive:

He indicates he is looking at the previous government’s quadrupling of the application fees, longer waiting times and the change from pardons to “record suspensions.” Although he offers no details of the changes he is considering, he does say he acknowledges the importance of weighing “protecting the public” against “fairness and proportionality.”

He said because there were no specifics, the people who are quoted are only reacting to the minster’s “broad comment.” He explained that they were chosen because they had knowledge and expertise about the pardon system:

We chose them because they work with or represent the people who will be most affected by the changes Mr. Goodale hints at – namely, people who are trying to obtain pardons.

Norm Boxall, for example, is a well-known and respected defense lawyer in Ottawa who provided commentary to CBC News about the Conservative government’s 2011 changes to the pardons system. At that time, he came recommended by the Canadian Bar Association. Ms. Crawford decided to follow up with him now that the Liberal government was signalling its intention to reverse the changes.

He rejected your notion that Mr. Boxall should not be quoted because you believe he contributed $500 to a Liberal leadership candidate. He told you:

I don’t know whether he did or not, but I don’t believe in any reasonable view that disqualifies him from offering comment on an issue on which he has expertise. He clearly states what his position is, which is based on what he wants to see happen. It is not just a blanket endorsement of Mr. Goodale’s promise.

REVIEW

You correctly cited a core principle of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices. The value of Balance is described in this way:

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.

From the headline “Public safety minister vows to overhaul ‘punitive’ criminal pardon system,” the article presents a negative view of the impact of the Conservative government changes to the system. Mr. Carter told you since there is no new policy yet, nor specifics of the ways in which it would change, there was no need for balance. But he also lists the things the minister found problematic: the quadrupling of the fees, the application fees, and the change from pardons to “record suspensions.” Seems pretty specific to me.

Had the story just been a straight accounting of what the minister had said that day, there would be more weight to the idea that it was appropriate to report what the minister said, and that over time other perspectives would be brought to bear. But as you pointed out, in this case both people quoted are critical of the current process. They are well qualified to give their views, but they are the only views. That is the issue.

I agree with Mr. Carter that to disqualify a criminal lawyer who made a contribution to a Liberal leadership candidate 10 years ago hardly disqualifies him from commenting on a policy well within his area of expertise. I don’t think it is reasonable for a reporter to quiz every professional about their political history. Of course, if there is a significant and ongoing relationship, it would be important to bring that matter to public attention. In this context, it is a red herring.

Mr. Carter told you the story would have benefitted from comment from a Conservative Party member. I agree, and without it the story does not live up to CBC policy. There is always a dilemma in interpreting what is reasonable in considering what constitutes balance over time. As this was a new development, it would have been better practice to ensure a range of views in the same article. If and when specific changes to the criminal pardon system are announced, it will be important to provide a range of views and perspectives.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman