Power & Politics: Equal opportunity questioning

The complainant, Ray Gribeauval, thought the program host was pushing the Conservative party line in a story about fiscal update. All parties were heard from, all positions put forward and questioned. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You are concerned that Rosemary Barton is biased toward the position of the Conservative Party in the work she does on Power and Politics. You cited as an example a segment on the November 20 edition of the program concerning an announcement from the finance minister that, contrary to Conservative claims, there would be a deficit and not a surplus for the year.

It would take too much time and space to reiterate examples of the biases and the intellectual dishonesty of this woman. They are legion and well documented, including in the petitions that are circulating. I will, however, give you a recent illustration of what I mean. Today (Friday Nov 20), an updated set of books on the fiscal position of the Federal government showed that, rather than a surplus, there will be a deficit of 3-4 billion. Instead of focusing on the accounting the Conservatives engaged in to show a surplus during the election campaign, she completely ignored the question and turned her fire on the new government instead. Her guest panel included no Liberals, and were of course, quite happy to go along. This kind of partisan nonsense may be OK on Fox, but not on the CBC.

You said that Ms. Barton should have focused on the accounting methods used by the former Conservative government so they could show a surplus during the election campaign, but instead she “completely ignored the question and turned her fire on the new government.”

The story was based on an announcement from the federal finance minister that after reviewing the books he believed that the projected surplus would instead be a deficit. This was the first fiscal update given by the newly elected Liberal government.

You felt that this was one example of the consistent approach on the program to promote the views and positions of the Conservative Party and to be critical of the current government.

You also had many complaints about the comment moderation on the CBC News.ca website. As I explained to you, those concerns will not be dealt with in this review as comments are beyond the mandate of the Office of the Ombudsman.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The executive producer of Power & Politics, Amy Castle, replied to your complaint. She pointed out that there was more than one segment involved in the coverage of the day’s announcement. She told you that before the panel you found objectionable, Ms. Barton had interviewed Finance Minister Bill Morneau for 12 minutes. She outlined the content of the interview:

During the interview with Mr. Morneau, Ms Barton asked the Minister if the projected $3 billion deficit would be added into the government’s planned $10 billion deficit, or if the government would need to cut back on some of its promises in order to deal with the fiscal reality it faced. She also asked Mr. Morneau why the Finance Department’s projection of a deficit was different from the Parliamentary Budget Office’s projection during the election campaign of a $1.2 billion surplus. And Ms. Barton asked Mr. Morneau how he would respond to people who were perhaps cynical of the government’s projected deficit.

The Finance Minister had a significant amount of air time to lay out the Liberal government’s plans and priorities, to defend the government’s decisions, and to offer suggestions on the origins of the projected deficit.

Ms. Castle explained that the panel, made up of the Conservative and NDP finance critics, followed that interview:

During the subsequent interview with the two opposition finance critics, Ms. Barton asked tough questions of both Ms. Raitt and Mr. Caron on their parties’ positions. In fact she asked Ms. Raitt “is it fair to say your government was painting too rosy a picture of the economy back in the spring?” And she challenged Ms. Raitt by asking “What would you have done to create more growth? Are you against spending money to stimulate the economy?”

She pointed out that Ms. Barton’s role is to hold elected officials, whether government or opposition, to account by asking hard questions, and she thought Ms. Barton had done so on this program.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic policy puts a great deal of emphasis on balance and fairness. Its hallmarks are the presence of a range of perspectives. The policy allows for the presentation of different points of view and perspective over a reasonable period of time. In this case, the new government had just announced its conclusion that there would be a deficit, after Finance Department officials reviewed the economic books. Earlier in the fall, the then-Conservative government had in fact stated something different – that there would be a surplus based on estimates from the Parliamentary Budget Office. It was sound judgment and best practice to “contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion.”

The coverage of the federal finance statement was a complete package. It began with short excerpts from the finance minister and the two opposition critics, went on to a substantial interview with the minister, and concluded with a panel of the NDP and Conservative critics.

In the interview with the minister Ms. Barton asked a range of questions – some designed to allow Mr. Morneau to lay out his findings and his position, others to challenge him. That is what responsible journalists do in their questioning. For example, the whole coverage package was framed this way by Ms. Barton:

The New Liberal government has gone over the books and says it has found red ink. The Department of Finance is projecting a 3 billion dollar deficit this year dipping deeper into the red next year at 3.9 billion and no return to surplus until 2019-2020. And those numbers don’t include the Liberals’ 25 billion dollar deficit spending plan laid out during the campaign. So does this change the landscape for the Liberal budget? Will the government stick to a 10 billion dollar deficit or could that number go up? Joining me now, Finance Minister Bill Morneau . . . Let’s start with why you wanted to do an economic update so quickly. As you mentioned yourself in the press conference you are 16 days into the job. What was the rush in terms of getting the numbers out there?

She then asked if the deficit was a surprise, asked how it would impact their plans, and allowed him to present his government’s findings and position. Later on she pressed him on the discrepancy between the projection of a 1.2 billion dollar surplus made by the Parliamentary Budget Office in September, and his announcement that his Finance Department officials were projecting a 3 billion dollar deficit.

Equally, Ms. Barton asked questions of the two critics that were designed to sometimes elicit their views, and at other times were a more pointed and challenging approach to those views. For example, she allowed Ms. Raitt to put her position and then said to her:

“They are dealing with things that were not in your budget. For instance, reduced growth: down a full percentage point from what we had seen it at; oil at 40 bucks a barrel, all sorts of other global instability. So would you recommend they manage the fact that they have a deficit …?”

She also asked Ms. Raitt if the Conservative forecast of a surplus was perhaps too rosy a projection. Ms. Barton was doing what was required of her – seeking information and accountability from public figures. It did not sound like siding with the former government and its policies.

It is the responsibility of CBC journalists to provide a range of views and perspectives so Canadians can form their own conclusions. It is also their obligation to treat people who hold those views in similar fashion. These interviews were excellent examples of doing just that. There was no taking of sides, but a respectful probing of positions. There was clearly no violation of policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman