Balancing a live phone-in. It’s not so simple.

The complainant, Shlomo Sharon, asked if there was censorship at work when he was told there were already Chris Alexander supporters on line when he called the Ontario Noon phone-in about the Conservative leadership race. The answer is there was no censorship - rather a legitimate attempt to balance a range of views in a live situation. Doing live phone-ins have many variables.

COMPLAINT

On April 27, 2017 you called the CBC Ottawa station to participate in the Ontario Today phone-in. The programme was focused on Kevin O’Leary’s announcement that he was leaving the Conservative Party leadership race. When you reached a show producer, you participated in a pre-interview. You said that when you mentioned you supported Chris Alexander, the producer told you that there were already enough callers who shared your views. You added that you spoke to other Alexander supporters who were told the same thing but only one person who backed him was able to speak with the programme host and be heard on the broadcast. You wanted to know if CBC “applied censorship.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor of CBC Ottawa, Ruth Zowdu, replied to your concern. She pointed out that the call-in was built around Kevin O’Leary’s withdrawal from the Conservative leadership race and that the programme host, Rita Celli, explicitly stated that priority would be given to those who supported O’Leary so that they could talk about their reaction to the news, and to say who else they might support instead. She explained how the process of screening callers was done:

As the host sits at the microphone and talks with the guest and with the audience members who take the time to call in, there is a second person behind the scenes answering the phones and helping to select the people who go on the air. This is the show producer, the person who spoke with you that day. On any given day, many more people call the studio line than can be included in the program. That means the producer must make quick decisions based on what she knows at the time. She must try to balance the calls to reflect some balance in subject matter, among other things. It is her goal to ensure a range of opinions over the course of the hour-long program. I can assure you that she takes this task very seriously. It is a job that is more art than science since one cannot know how long each caller will be on the air, nor whether those selected will remain on hold long enough to be included in the show.

She said she reviewed that day’s broadcast with the producer. There were about 10 callers in all, and at the outset most of them supported O’Leary. The producer remembered your call, and added that there were already other people in the queue waiting to go on air who had expressed support for Chris Alexander. She explained that after your call other pro-Alexander callers hung up, although one of them did speak with the programme host. Ms. Zowdu said that had others hung on, they may have also been included. She pointed out that there was support for a variety of candidates in a crowded field, but some were not mentioned at all, since no one phoned in to support them. She assured you that there was no censorship, and that in any given programme the producers who have no control over who actually calls in strive for some reasonable balance:

All perspectives are welcome as long as they answer the question posed in the program that day. However, callers must be screened to ensure a range of opinions is reflected in the program every day. Given the range of callers who dialed into this particular show, I believe that a balance was achieved. Unfortunately your call was not included on the program that day. The decision was made based on an honest attempt to include a range of voices, not through a desire to suppress a particular opinion.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices provides some guidance in the policy about seeking audience opinion, which is the function of call-in programmes:

We give our audience members an opportunity to express their opinion in order to enhance our reflection of Canadians' diverse views and sensibilities.

No matter what platform or in what form - online comments, talkback, phone-ins, or digital contributions, this content is separate from our journalism. It is clearly distinguished from journalistic content.

However, we exercise journalistic judgment about what we choose to publish and highlight. When making those choices, we take care that the material featured reflects the range of opinion the audience members expressed on an issue.

As Ms. Zowdu explained to you, the show producer is balancing several variables in the context of Ontario Today - it is a live programme and decisions are being made in real time. There are a limited number of callers that can actually make it to air, and it is in the exercising of journalistic judgment that you were told there was enough representation of people who backed your candidate. The host was very clear at the outset that the priority would be Mr. O’Leary’s supporters, given the topic of the day. In setting up her expert guest and the invitation to phone in, she said:

At a sometimes testy news conference with reporters yesterday, O’Leary, side by side with another contender, throwing his support behind the hard core libertarian, Maxime Bernier. O’Leary’s exit is a massive shake-up in the race for the Conservative leadership. Last in, first out, they say it’s the Liberals who are most disappointed. They were gearing up for a battle with O’Leary, but if you are Conservative, if you bought a membership because of Kevin O’Leary, how are you taking his sudden departure?

You’re gonna get priority, call this number … The ballot could arrive at your house in a few days. Will you bother to vote? Are you really invested in house this race will end? The “analysts” are all dying to know what people like you will do…

Of the 11 calls taken, 5 were O’Leary supporters, as they were explicitly given priority. With O’Leary’s withdrawal, there were 13 candidates left in the race. Not all the candidates were mentioned, but Chris Alexander was one of them. It is reasonable in the context of the question of the day and the number of candidates for the producer, to let people know that their point, or their candidate, is already represented. Programmers also must be vigilant that supporters of one position or another do not stack the lines.

Ms. Zowdu told you that other Alexander supporters were on hold, and that some of them hung up before they could be put on air. You stated from your discussions with others you spoke to, they were all told there were enough supporters of Mr. Alexander. Since there is no record, I cannot fully verify the precise details. I spoke to Ms. Zowdu and she clarified the discrepancy. The system used for stacking the calls can accommodate 7 at a time. There is also a brief description of what the person wishes to say. She received a cluster of calls - all in support of Mr. Alexander - and put some of them on hold. When she realized how many she had, being mindful of the policy to “take care that the material features reflect the range of opinion the audience members expressed on an issue”, and what the purpose of the programming was, she went back on the line to some callers to tell them she was letting the calls go because there were too many with the same viewpoint. Others may have very well hung up. I do not think there was any bad faith on the part of the programmers. There is no reason to believe there was some sort of concerted effort to thwart expressions of support for one candidate. There would be reason for concern if out of all those callers no one who supported Mr. Alexander got to air - that was not the case. The programme provided a range of views and was certainly not the only coverage of the leadership race. There was no violation of policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman