Power & Politics Panel - Opinion or Bias

The complainant, Chris Ryan, thought a Power & Politics panelist had been insensitive and inappropriate in his comments about former Liberal cabinet Minister Hunter Tootoo. His opinion was forthright but was well within the bounds of reasonable comment. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You thought that comments made by Ian Capstick, a regular participant on the “Power Panel” feature of CBC News Power & Politics, was biased. You felt he had allowed his personal views to overly influence his comments about former Liberal MP and Cabinet Minister Hunter Tootoo. You said “he seemed to take a personal angle in his objections to Mr. Tootoo and his revelations.”

The discussion took place on the September 7th, 2016 edition of Power & Politics. CBC News Chief Correspondent Peter Mansbridge had recorded an interview with Mr. Tootoo in which he revealed more details about his struggles with alcohol addiction, an inappropriate relationship with a staff member, and his resignation from the Liberal cabinet and caucus.

You were concerned that Mr. Capstick was dismissive of the underlying mental health addiction issues Mr. Tootoo faced. You considered him “behind the times in understanding mental health and community and society”. You said this was the second time you considered he had been inappropriate and biased when discussing Indigenous “public servants” with mental illnesses. The other appearance involved Senator Patrick Brazeau:

Memory serves Mr Capstick took a similar stand of personal disdain earlier in the year when CBC Power and Politics guest panelists were discussing the political future of Mr Brazeau's anticipated return...he seems to be more willing to make it even harder for Indigenous Public Servants with mental illness who have the added burden of blazing trails for indigenous youth and mentally ill citizens in general.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of Power & Politics, Amy Castle, replied to your complaint. She reminded you of the context of the discussion - that programme host Rosemary Barton had asked the panelists for their thoughts on Peter Mansbridge’s interview with Mr. Tootoo, the things he had disclosed about his struggle with alcohol addiction and the trauma of sexual and physical abuse.

As they took turns over the next few minutes talking about it, the panellists really spoke little of what one described as Mr. Tootoo’s layered and sad story of personal struggle. For the most part, they spoke about the way in which the story had come out, the political implications, and the task that Mr. Tootoo faced in returning to the Liberal caucus.

Had Mr. Tootoo resigned to seek treatment for his alcoholism, much as Liberal MP Seamus O’Regan had some months earlier, the road back into caucus might be clearer. But Mr. Tootoo had also said he had been involved in an inappropriate relationship, although he said he would not discuss it further. The panellists agreed that both the fact that he had had such a relationship and then would not talk about it were damaging.

She pointed out that Mr. Capstick’s position was that Mr. Tootoo was an elected official and had to be held to a very high standard, that he was “a leader and a role model, and he had failed.” He thought Mr. Tootoo should resign his seat, not because of mental health issues or an inappropriate relationship, nor his decision not to provide any details about it, but because, in Mr. Capstick’s word, if “he really does want to protect this woman, he should not be a member of parliament anymore.”

Ms. Castle told you that panelists are asked to speak out of their own perspectives and personal experience. She reminded you that two years ago Mr. Capstick disclosed that he had been sexually harassed by two members of parliament when he worked on Parliament Hill as a political staffer. She rejected your assertion that Mr. Capstick is “behind the times” vis-à-vis mental health issues, especially in relation to indigenous public servants and said you had not supplied any examples of that attitude.

She added that there were a range of views presented in the course of the discussion, notably that of Tim Powers, who brought a different perspective to the issues of mental health based on his experience as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

REVIEW

One of the relevant CBC journalistic policies to consider in this instance is the one governing opinion. This is the policy that governs commentators and guests:

CBC, in its programming, over time, provides a wide range of comment and opinion on significant issues.

We achieve balance by featuring multiple perspectives and points of view to reflect a diversity of opinion.

It is important to mention any association, affiliation or special interest a guest or commentator may have so that the public can fully understand that person's perspective.

It is also important to consider the framing of the discussion, which provided the context for the analysis and opinion provided by the commentators. In this case, host Rosemary Barton asked them to respond to clips of a longer interview between Peter Mansbridge and Hunter Tootoo. One of the issues it raised was that there are still unanswered questions, and that details which led to Mr. Tootoo’s resignation from cabinet and caucus had been revealed in a piecemeal fashion. The framing of the interview was the political cost to Mr. Tootoo and the party by having these revelations come out in two stages. It was not a discussion per se, about the complex and sensitive issues of dealing with addictions and mental health issues, although it was addressed in the context of the discussion because it played such an important part in events. And in fact, as Ms. Castle pointed out to you, one of the panelists, Tim Powers, provided information and perspective regarding the impact. He addressed the issue of Mr. Tootoo’s political future and why it was important to take into account his attempt to confront and overcome his addiction.

TIM POWERS

Not to excuse his behaviour, I do not want to do that ...but there are lots of recovering addicts and addicts that are still struggling in different communities. They come back into the workforce...and I think as it relates to this government and this parliament, people also have to keep that in mind, too. If you discard him entirely because his struggles overcame him, what sort of message does that send? I mean Ian is right to say that there is still damage being done because he is serving and there’s these other circumstances that are there.

You thought Mr. Capstick had not been fair or sensitive to an indigenous politician, in this case Mr. Tootoo, and in an earlier criticism of Patrick Brazeau. You thought this did not take into account the extra burden these men carry as “trailblazers” for their communities and for others facing mental health challenges. In that regard, Mr. Capstick actually agreed with you; he simply came to a different conclusion. He pointed out that as role models they had to be held to a very high standard, and that elected officials did not operate under the same rules as other employees. He stated: “He is serving a representative democracy, Tim, he is not an employee of the House of Commons,” He went on to say:

Let me be clear. I am not saying that all Members of Parliament that have addiction problems or alcohol problems can’t re-enter the House of Commons. I am saying that the facts in this particular case as we know them and as we are presenting them on this show - inappropriate workplace relationship in fact does violate that sacrosanct trust you have between yourself as a voter, an individual who votes for that person, and their work, the job as you put it, the employment. A member of parliament is not an everyday job - there’s a morality clause on that one.

Mr. Capstick has been part of the Power & Politics panels for the past eight years, and he is hired to provide insight and opinion based on his background and experience. Watching him over the years, he is frequently forthright and to the point in his evaluation of politicians and their performance. As he himself told me, he “wears his heart on his sleeve.” In this case, he had said Mr. Tootoo should resign from the House because of his actions. You may disagree and feel that it didn’t account for Mr. Tootoo’s struggle with addiction, but there is no violation in policy in having said it. You are concerned that Mr. Capstick may not be sensitive to the special position of Indigenous politicians and you cited a comment about Senator Patrick Brazeau. You provided a tweet from October 2015 in which Mr. Capstick apologizes for an error in characterizing a legal decision involving the Senator - this is not evidence of systematic bias. If Mr. Capstick were only ever very critical of indigenous politicians, that might raise some flags. He is outspoken on a range of issues through his appearances on Power & Politics.

You had a memory of another appearance when discussing Mr. Brazeau’s return to the Senate. His return was announced this past July. Mr. Capstick was not part of the discussion on Power & Politics.

I spoke at some length with Mr. Capstick about his appearances and comments on Power & Politics. He said he thought carefully about your critique, and stated said that next time he might consider being more explicit that he is “aware of the socio-economic reasons this happens, but one can’t make assumptions”, but in the end one can “only judge the actions.” He also pointed out that he has two decades of political experience to draw on, as well as his personal history, which he has been quite open about. That knowledge enables citizens, as the policy states, to understand his perspective. Those who are hired to express opinion do so based on their professional judgment and their own experience - that is the perspective they bring to the table. Speaking from that unique perspective does not violate CBC policy on opinion, nor fairness. It is not carte blanche of course, but it does provide considerable leeway.

He also told me that he has in the past, and continues to work closely with many indigenous organizations through MediaStyle, his public affairs consultancy firm. Your complaint has generated some thought and discussion about how to balance open and straightforward commentary while taking into consideration some sensitive and important issues. That is a good thing. As I previously noted, taken over all, this segment of Power & Politics achieved that. Mr. Capstick’s comments provided one perspective to that discussion and they, in no way, violated CBC policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman