LNG in British Columbia: Keeping the Debate Balanced

The complainant, Anton van Walraven, thought the noon progamme in British Columbia was biased in favour of developing LNG capacity in the province. He pointed to the interview of spokespeople for the same pro-development group four times in six weeks. He had a point that this was overuse of the same interviewees, but they were not interviewed in a vacuum: other views were represented.

COMPLAINT

You are concerned that the producers of B.C. Almanac, the noon phone-in show for the province, gave far too much air time to a spokesperson of a group that supports the LNG industry in the province. You had many concerns about this over-representation of the industry’s position. You pointed out that in a six week period, between February 10 and March 29, 2016 a representative of the Resource Works Society was a guest on the program four times. You also pointed out that the same guest from the Society, the Executive Director, Stewart Muir, was used three times. You were concerned that in three of those appearances there was no description of the organization to allow listeners to understand the guest’s perspective:

Resource Works Society is not an independent organization, it is a resource industry funded organization with close links to a range of industries and industry branch organizations. It was created to forward and promote the economic and political agenda of the BC resource industry. Its communication and messaging is carefully designed with the intention to confuse the public and public debate.

You were also concerned that there was no strong or authoritative rebuttal of the information and opinions provided by the representatives of Resource Works. You stated the spokespeople were able to give their views in a “critique-free environment.” You said overall there was a lack of balance:

“the outside organization [Resource Works] was the solo guest, was present in studio while the other guests were reached by phone, or the outside organization in question received considerable more time.”

All of this led you to conclude that B.C. Almanac was in violation of many of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices, among them independence, accuracy, balance, fairness and integrity:

With providing an outside organization with a clear economical and political agenda, frequent and ample radio time without proper introduction, disclosure of the outside organizations position and funding, and critical rebuttal by the presenters of the program:

  • BC Almanac’s independence has been influenced,
  • BC Almanac has not been honest with its audience,
  • BC Almanac has not treated the parties in the discussion evenhandedly or in the absence of discussion has not provided balance,
  • BC Almanac has given the impression to support the position of the outside organization and the industry is represents.

You also mentioned that you phoned into the program on March 29th, not to participate in the phone-in but to let the programmers know your view of the “inappropriateness” of the Resource Works person on air again so soon after the last appearance. You said there was no interest in what you had to say and the producer hung up on you.

You also disclosed that you, as a member of a “grassroots organization” called Concerned Citizens Bowen Island, have campaigned for the past year to deny an environmental certificate to a proposed LNG terminal to be built on Howe Sound.

You asked that the programmers of B.C. Almanac “set the record straight”:

I demand that an apology with clarification concerning the nature of the outside organization in question is issued by BC Almanac on its radio program on three separate dates in a time frame of 6 weeks ASAP.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Lorna Haeber is the Senior Director of Programming for CBC British Columbia. She replied to your concerns because she is responsible for B.C. Almanac, the province-wide noon show.

She provided some context that she considered important to analyze the coverage from January 2016 through March 2016. She noted that there had been a shift in the focus of the coverage and said it was no longer a “debate between supporters and opponents of LNG expansion.” She said in the period she examined, the discussion has moved to a debate about whether any of the projects will actually move forward. She noted the government had moved away from earlier forecasts, which projected that at least one pipeline and terminal would be in operation by 2015, and three more would be on stream by 2020.

In that context, she noted that B.C. Almanac had 7 segments in the time period she examined. In some of them, she added, LNG was the central part of the discussion, and in others it was part of a broader look at an issue. She added the program had 14 guests during those segments, and “the guests who were on the show represented a range of perspectives.”

She agreed with you that it was not the best practice to have included Stewart Muir, Executive Director of Resource Works, three times in that period, along with Philip Cross who is associated with Resource Works, as well as being a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. She explained that one of the reasons that happened is that the regular leadership of the program was not present. She informed you that the producer noticed the overuse upon her return and reviewed the matter with her team.

She addressed your concerns about the characterization, or lack thereof, of Resource Works in the introduction of the guests associated with it:

They were introduced at one point as "a non profit group with the goal of building a responsible natural resource industry in BC" and on another occasion as "a supporter" of the pro-LNG rallies being held in northern BC. Generally we try to stay away from sweeping generalizations to describe a group and instead quote how they describe themselves or point out whether they have taken a position on a particular issue. There is some nuance that comes into play when organizations are offering their opinion on complex matters but I can assure you from choice of guest, to the introduction, to the question line, our goal is to deliver content in a way that helps the audience become informed and able to reach their own conclusion.

REVIEW

As you noted, there are a number of aspects of the CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices (JSP) that pertain here. The most critical are the commitment to balance, fairness and impartiality. CBC journalists are obliged to treat organizations and individuals “with openness and respect” and to “treat them even-handedly,” and to ensure that coverage does not promote a particular point of view.

It is your contention that by allowing spokespeople from Resource Works access to the airwaves frequently, the staff of B.C. Almanac were doing just that – promoting a point of view. Each appearance was in the context of a different issue or aspect of the question of resource development in British Columbia. Having the perspective of a group that supports resource development and LNG present in these discussions is not a violation of policy. It would have been had it been the only voice. You think the deck was stacked because Mr. Muir was a studio guest and others were not. I disagree. I listened to each of these programs, and the views of Resource Works were sufficiently balanced by other perspectives.

The first program you cited on February 10th was framed around the Throne Speech. The Liberal government had made predictions and commitments about the development of LNG pipelines and terminals, and they missed the first deadlines. The discussion was framed by questions about the future of the LNG industry in the province. It is appropriate that someone who believes there is a future – in this case Philip Cross, a fellow at Resource Works – participated. His views were balanced by an interview with Matt Horne, the Pembina Institute’s Associate Regional Director for British Columbia, who clearly refuted Mr. Cross’s message of optimism. There is no mathematical formula to measure balance – there is no obligation for it to be equal, but rather equitable.

This is what the JSP has to say:

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.

I note that within this one episode there were divergent views on a matter of controversy.

The episode on March 2nd also presented more than one point of view. In fact, it was pegged to the news of the day. The prime minister was in Vancouver to discuss climate change, and a group, including David Suzuki, were to lobby him about committing to a green energy strategy, including job creation in green energy. The host of the program framed the discussion with a series of questions:

  1. What do you think of this plan to create a million new jobs by investing in renewable energy?
  2. How effective do you think it would be to boost the economy and reduce greenhouse gases?
  3. What effect would this plan have on your community?

Posing those questions, there is no issue in having an interviewee who believes that there is an economic future in fossil fuels. Once again, there was an opposing view. One of the supporters of the plan, Tony Clark of the Green Economy Network, was also on the program.

The next program segment was also linked to a news event – a pro-LNG rally taking place as B.C. Almanac went to air. While most of the interviewees shared similar views and noted the commitment to Balance is over time, this was an exploration of the views of the people who believe that the development of the industry would be beneficial to the community. Other views have been presented over time and I have no doubt coverage will continue. I note that people with different perspectives called in to the program.

The last program in question was based on a recently released study linking hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes. The study was titled Hydraulic Fracturing and Seismicity in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin. One of the authors of the study, Honn Kao of Natural Resources Canada, was interviewed along with Mr. Muir.

None of these programs left the impression that CBC programmers were favouring one perspective over another, nor was only one perspective presented. CBC journalism, indeed all journalism, has an obligation to lay out various views and perspectives and give citizens the information they need to form their own conclusions.

Part of the information needed is to know if a particular guest represents a particular point of view. You pointed out that there was not a proper introduction to the Resource Works guests, and that it should have been much clearer that they are aligned with the resource industry.

CBC’s JSP provides some guidance in this matter:

We are open and straightforward when we present interviewees and their statements. We make every effort to disclose the identity of interviewees and to give the context and explanations necessary for the audience to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements. In exceptional cases and for serious cause, we may decide to withhold such information in whole or in part. In such cases we explain the situation to the audience without disclosing the information that must be kept secret.

As Ms. Haeber pointed out to you, in two cases there was some description. In one case, the day of the pro-LNG rally, it was appropriately identified as a supporter of the rally. And in another it was described as a “non-profit group with the goal of building a responsible natural resource industry in BC." This is sufficient to situate the organization. In one episode there was no descriptor, and for consistency’s sake it would be helpful. It also became fairly obvious from the responses what the perspective was.

The other important issue you raised is the frequency with which the views of this one organization were presented. I am differentiating between their support of natural resource development and the organization itself. There was no violation in presenting that view, nor was there a lack of balance overall. It isn’t the issue of presenting this perspective but presenting it from the point of view of one organization. It does seem an inordinate representation of that particular group. It does not live up to the policy of ensuring a range of voices over a reasonable period of time. For that matter, another guest, Matt Horne was also used twice in a short time frame. CBC programmers might want to think about broadening the gene pool of qualified interviewees.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman