Tough But Fair - Grilling a politician is a journalist’s job

The complainant, Mary MacDonald, thought Anna Maria Tremonti was hostile and biased in an interview with Conservative Party leadership candidate Kellie Leitch. The topic was a proposal to have a values-screening of immigrants. The interview was challenging, the questions were appropriate, and the interviewee was able to present her views and position. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

In early September one of the Conservative Party leadership candidates, Kellie Leitch, sent a survey question to her supporters asking if prospective immigrants to this country should be screened for “anti-Canadian values.” The Current featured an interview with Ms. Leitch in light of the strong reaction to her proposal. You thought the interview was “partisan and one-sided.” You said you found the host, Anna Maria Tremonti, had a hostile tone and was disrespectful. You felt her tone “went far beyond the probing questions ...from a diligent journalist.” This was not only a disservice to Ms. Leitch, you noted, but to the people listening to the programme:

I was interested in what Ms. Leitch had to say, and found that she responded politely and respectfully throughout to Tremonti's hostile questioning. It is my understanding that Ms. Leitch is a highly-regarded medical practitioner. I am compelled to ask why Ms. Leitch was addressed as "Kellie" and not "Dr. Leitch". It is disrespectful that Anna Maria Tremonti does not do so...She was not only disrespectful to Ms. Leitch, but to the listening audience who deserved to hear a non-partisan discussion of the merits or lack thereof of Ms. Leitch's proposals. Anna Maria Tremonti intimated that Kellie Leitch had no right to raise these questions.

You found further evidence of bias in the interview of two guests after Ms. Leitch. You said they both opposed her and contributed to the one-sided nature of the broadcast. You said Canadians should be able to hear Ms. Leitch’s views and form their own conclusions, and the programme host should have used a neutral tone.

Listeners of this radio program are capable of forming their own judgements and opinions based on what the guest has to say. The hostile and accusatory approach adopted by Anna Maria Tremonti conveys to the audience that MP Kellie Leitch has no right to express any such viewpoint or opinion.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The Current, Kathleen Goldhar, responded to your complaint.

She pointed out that Kellie Leitch’s proposal had stirred up quite a bit of controversy and had received extensive coverage across Canada. The interview was intended to probe the proposal and to hear Ms. Leitch’s thoughts and concerns. She added that Ms. Leitch was able to present her point of view and position fully. She stated that Ms. Tremonti encouraged her to “explain her point of view” and that she was able to speak “at some length about her views uninterrupted.”

It is fair to say that Dr. Leitch is a respected Member of Parliament, a former cabinet minister in the previous government, and Conservative Party member, and medical doctor. She is articulate, outspoken, and a skilled debater. She came on the program to present her point of view and put her case skillfully and convincingly.

She explained that it is not the goal of the interview to simply offer a political candidate a platform to present her position. She said it is the task of the journalist to probe, challenge and test the assumptions a politician presents, as well as to remind listeners that there are other views on the subject at hand.

Ms. Goldhar also addressed your criticism of the interview with the two guests after the Leitch interview. She told you that one guest was a political writer and the other was an expert on public policy. She explained they were part of the broadcast to provide “further information and context.”

Specifically, we invited Ms. Delacourt and Ms. Kurl to offer their analysis of the political strategy Ms. Leitch was employing during her campaign, a strategy quarterbacked by the same man who was responsible for Rob Ford’s successful mayoralty campaign in Toronto. We also expected they would shed some light on the way Canadians are responding to Dr. Leitch’s proposal. Ms. Tremonti's job in this part of the story was not to hold them to account, but to explore their knowledge to help us to better understand the context of Dr. Leitch’s proposal.

REVIEW

Your concerns about this interview pertain to many of the core principles laid out in CBC News Journalistic Standards and Practices (JSP) - fairness, balance and impartiality.

Fairness

In our information gathering and reporting, we treat individuals and organizations with openness and respect. We are mindful of their rights. We treat them even-handedly.

Balance

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.

Impartiality

We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.

You felt that Ms. Tremonti did not treat Ms. Leitch in an even-handed manner. You said the interview was hostile and that the interviewer took the position that Ms. Leitch “had no right to pose the proposal she did.” I listened to the interview several times and read the transcript. The questions I heard did not challenge the right to make the proposal - they challenged what Ms. Leitch was trying to achieve and how one could concretely create a value-screening process; that is a legitimate journalistic pursuit. As Ms. Goldhar mentioned, this proposal had generated a lot of controversy and had been criticized by all the Conservative leadership candidates declared at that time, as well as by the acting party leader. Running a statement from one of them at the beginning was a way of illustrating that point. It would be false equivalence to find someone in the party to speak in its favour if that was not the case.

The first question posed to Ms. Leitch was open-ended and allowed her to put her position in some detail. She was able to say what her values were and that she felt it was time for a conversation about them. The broadcast segment (with some editing on my part) began this way:

Well, it started with a survey question to her supporters. Conservative MP and party leadership contender Kellie Leitch asked whether would-be immigrants should be screened for “anti-Canadian values.” But since coming to light last week, that survey has been answered with condemnation and new questions about Ms. Leitch's fitness to lead...The Conservative’s interim leader Rona Ambrose has also distanced herself from the proposal. But Kellie Leitch has been standing firm and we have reached her today in Quebec City…

Ms. Tremonti began by telling Ms. Leitch she was interested in what she was thinking and then asked “Why do you think there should be screening of would-be immigrants for anti-Canadian values?” That is an open-ended question and Ms. Leitch answered at some length and in quite a bit of detail. She was not interrupted by the interviewer. Once her position was expressed, Ms. Tremonti began probing. That is the purpose of a skilled interviewer - to delve in detail and hold accountable those who are in public office and are in positions of authority. Ms. Tremonti is known as a tough interviewer who is quite tenacious in getting past the usual answers, especially from politicians. So while it might not have seemed “even-handed” to you, as the policy mentions, Ms. Leitch is by no means the only politician who has been rigorously questioned by Ms. Tremonti and other CBC journalists. They are using their knowledge and expertise to provide a fuller picture so that Canadians can make up their own minds about what they are hearing. There is an article on The Current website that distilled the interview, and it begins with Ms. Leitch’s five values and why she thinks a conversation about them are important. I think it captured the essence of the interview well, and it would be what people would be left to consider and make up their own minds about Ms. Leitch’s proposal.

Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch is standing firm in her suggestion that would-be immigrants should be screened for "anti-Canadian values."

"It's not intolerant to believe in a set of values we expect everyone to share," Leitch tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Leitch points to five values she believes are quintessential in a Canadian identity: equality of opportunity, hard work, generosity, freedom and tolerance.

"I want everyone to know that when they come to this country — or if they're in this country — if they work hard, they actually can get ahead — especially our young people,"

You sensed that the message to the candidate was that she had no right to talk about values. The questions were not about articulating values, or about the purpose of having a conversation with Canadians; rather they were probing what a values-based screening would look like. Ms. Tremonti also questioned whether it was fair to test immigrants about their attitudes to women, or whether they think it is acceptable to beat them, when she pointed out that people born in this country have done exactly that. You may not agree with the line of questioning but it is a reasonable point to make. Another part of the JSP states that journalists use their professional judgment based on knowledge and expertise. The proposal to screen for values did not occur in a vacuum. For one thing, Ms. Leitch is a candidate for the leadership of a political party. Another consideration is the documented nativism and suspicion of immigrants in many countries, exemplified by the 2016 U.S. election campaign and the candidacy of Donald Trump. You considered it inappropriate to make that comparison - that is your opinion but there is a logic to it, since it deals with an approach to immigration. Ms. Leitch thought it was an unnecessary comparison, and she was able to clearly state that, and her reasons why:

AMT:

Okay. You know Donald Trump is ahead of you on this. He's proposing extreme vetting. Is that the same thing?

KELLIE LEITCH:

Look, I understand the compulsion to try to paint the conversation about Canadian values in that light. But this isn't the same thing. And I don't think that that's fair.

AMT:

Well, how is it different?

KELLIE LEITCH:

As I mentioned before, this is about having a conversation about our Canadian values, about what we are about, about a positive constructive conversation about the reality of the values that built our nation. And those values for myself as I've mentioned before—equality of opportunity, hard work and generosity, freedom and tolerance—I think that's a fundamental conversation for our party to have and also to have with the public. And these are the values that I believe in and that I think Canadians agree on. And so I'll be speaking about these. I will be talking to my party membership about them. I'm pleased to have a conversation with others in the Canadian public about this. But this is fundamentally a different conversation than what people are trying to depict it as. And as I understand, as I say, the compulsion to go there, but that's not what this is about.

The two guests that followed the interview brought a different perspective to the discussion. You are right, Ms. Delacourt, the political columnist, did reinforce the general thrust of the interview, and that was to try and determine, as she said, how the conversation Ms. Leitch wanted to have with Canadians “takes place and whose minds she wants to change.” She then went on to provide an assessment of the reasons why Ms. Leitch might have introduced this matter into her leadership campaign, a legitimate piece of political analysis. The other interviewee, Shachi Kurl, brought expertise on assessing public opinion and public policy. She reinforced something Ms. Leitch said many times in her interview, and pointed out that many Canadians would welcome Ms. Leitch’s approach:

Well, to Susan's point, I think you know we may purse our lips or roll our eyes a little bit about the improbability of a values test for immigrants. How do you administer something like that? But at the same time, Kellie Leitch is speaking truth and she is giving voice to what a significant segment of Canadians are thinking and we know that from years of polling on this issue. They're not the majority but they're not a fringe segment either. You know we know that about roughly three in 10 people in this country are not particularly satisfied with the way immigrants are integrating into Canadian society. Agree or disagree but that is the view you know of about 30 per cent. We know that beyond party lines and beyond the conservative core, you've got majorities in this country who do think when you're thinking about the trade-off for the face-off between people integrating and adopting sort of mainstream Canadian values—and I'm using air quotes, we're on the radio—but whatever those values are versus sort of keeping their culture at all costs. Canadians want to see more integration and they want to see immigration that is more focused on filling economic and workforce needs over and above for example going out and rescuing folks from troubled places in the world.

Finally, you noted that the interviewer referred to Ms. Leitch as Kellie, and you wondered why she was not addressed as Dr. Leitch, since she is a medical doctor. Ms. Tremonti referred to her in the third person as Kellie Leitch. I did not hear Ms. Tremonti call her Kellie when asking the questions. It is CBC policy, as it is in some other media organizations, to not use “Dr.” when addressing politicians when the issues being discussed do not concern health or medical issues. This was not a sign of disrespect but CBC practice. The honorific “Dr.” is not used when referring to Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, although she also is an M.D.

This segment of The Current provided Ms. Leitch an opportunity to fully explain her platform and provided critical perspectives of her proposal. There was no violation of CBC policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman