Twitter no-no: Think before you click

The complainant, Betty Sheppard, was appalled by an anti-Harper tweet posted by a CBC gardening columnist. The tweet was out of line and he should not have been using a CBC account to express personal opinions.

COMPLAINT

You were angry when you found out about a tweet posted in August by Lyndon Penner, who is a gardening columnist for CBC and is heard on radio in Alberta and Saskatchewan. He posted a tweet using an account entitled @cbcgardener. The tweet said “When Stephen Harper dies, I’m having a cake made and hosting a party.”

You pointed out he says his opinions are his own, but he was using a CBC account when he posted his comment. You said you were deeply offended by the remark:

To celebrate the death of someone who is still alive is paramount to death threats and very disgusting, especially to a man who has served this great country. I know you don’t agree with the former Prime Minister’s policies but that is beside the point. This is just wrong and I demand he be fired! After all, wasn’t the CBC all over the story of the Hydro One employee that was fired for heckling a reporter? Well, Lyndon Penner should be fired for such disgusting remarks about the former Prime Minister!

You thought that CBC management was not taking this matter seriously enough and that it is inappropriate that Mr. Penner is still broadcasting for CBC.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Senior Managing Director of the Prairie/North region, John Bertrand, replied to your concerns. He explained that Mr. Penner is not an employee of CBC and has the status of a freelancer. He told you he followed up with Mr. Penner and he now understands his obligations to CBC and the protocol he must follow in his use of social media. He also pointed out that Mr. Penner’s role on air is a narrow one:

When he is on our airwaves he discusses gardening, not politics or other social issues. So he simply didn’t realize that expressing his personal opinions would have an impact on the CBC, which is essentially a client of his.

He told you that there would be no further incidents of this kind.

REVIEW

CBC’s Journalistic Policy on social media is quite straightforward:

In our personal social media activity, we are mindful of our professional association with CBC, and ensure what we do conforms to CBC social media and conflict of interest policies.

We maintain professional decorum and do nothing that can bring the Corporation into disrepute.

The expression of personal opinions on controversial subjects or politics can undermine the credibility of CBC journalism and erode the trust of our audience.

The fact that this tweet was sent out using a CBC Twitter account means that there was a violation of policy. The fact that Mr. Penner is a freelancer complicates matters. Mr. Penner is a regular contributor as a gardening columnist. While his work on air must conform to CBC policy, he is not an employee. Even with employees, there is always a tension between an individual’s right to freedom of expression, and their obligations as employees and professionals.

Mr. Bertrand explained that Mr. Penner had no idea this was a problem, or what was expected of him in his CBC role. There is no reason to doubt that this is the case. CBC management took appropriate steps to ensure Mr. Penner understood what he did wrong and what his responsibilities are. The question is why he was handed a CBC account without instruction in the first place. It might give CBC management pause though – and make them consider being much more explicit at the outset about what is permitted in dealing with freelance employees.

As for the specific tweet you cite, I agree it is in poor taste. It is astonishing what people say in 140 characters. It might be meant to be ironic, or humorous, but mostly it often seems just plain mean spirited or nasty.

I understand that there were other tweets of a more conventional political nature. If these were posted on a personal twitter feed, there would be no issue. Mr. Penner is not a CBC employee and has a right as a citizen to express his opinions. He talks about gardens and plants when he is on air. As Mr. Bertrand pointed out, he is never involved in political reporting. His role is not a journalistic one. He blurred the line in an unacceptable way because he posted using a twitter name with “CBC” in it.

Mr. Bertrand assured you and others who wrote to complain about the tweet that it will not happen again. The offending tweet was removed. Given the long reach and permanence of the digital space, there might be consideration of finding a way to acknowledge errors in this space, much the way CBCNews.ca does with its clarification and corrections boxes. It would be consistent with CBC journalistic policy on corrections, and reinforce its stated aims of openness and accountability.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman